Example 13

Best before…

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The new millennium started without much problems. However, some minor problems may have become overt after 2001. It has to do with the economic indication of “best before” on products. Typically the year is indicated with only two digits. Up to now that has been no problem, 99 simply cannot indicate a month. The same applies to 00 for 2000. But from 2001-2012 the digits for year, month and day can be exchanged. The problem is worsened by the American way of indicating date in the format MM-DD-YY (with MM=Month, DD=Day, and YY=Year of course). Why they do that is not clear to me, English usually has more logic in this respect than German or Dutch. Take e.g. the number 153. In English this is pronounced “from left to right”, the largest quantity first: Hundred Fifty-Three (this makes it easier to write down too). Germans and Dutch say “Hundert Drei und Fünfzig” and “Honderd Drie en Vijftig” (Hundred Three and Fifty). So, for expiration dates, either DD-MM-YY or YY-MM-DD would make most sense (if used consistently). However, now the following indication:


could be February 3 2001, or February 1 2003 or March 2 2001. Depending on the product the consequences of this difference can be huge.

Spacing can also add to confusion, I actually read the label below as 201-004.


Quite often the year or day is left out. It then depends upon the product. On a carton of fresh milk, e.g., no year is indicated, just day and month, while on the examples below only month and year are indicated.

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A way out is of course to use letters for the month. Although March may be indicated as MAR, MAA, or MER, it is less confusing than digits only.


And if this method is used, I still prefer the right-hand example with full year indicated (how much extra ink is that?):

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If you can tell me (or even better, send an example) of how this is done overseas, please do!
See also A summary of the international standard date and time notation by Markus Kuhn.

submitted by Dick de Waard

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