Question: I've heard that kosher and organic meats are at less risk for mad cow disease. Is that true?
Answer: There is probably no difference in the risk of contracting diseases, including mad cow disease (formally known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE), in kosher meats. The cows used for kosher meat are from the same herds; the differences are in the slaughtering, sanitation and inspection processes, according to Rabbi Menachem Genack of the Orthodox Union in New York. Federal rules for organic food products require producers of organic livestock to feed their herds a "total feed ration composed of agricultural products including pasture and foliage." The regulations prohibit the feeding of mammalian or poultry slaughter byproducts to livestock because such products have been linked to BSE in Europe. It's worth noting that the Food and Drug Administration banned the feeding of mammalian meat and bone meal to all U.S. cattle, sheep and goats in 1997.
Q: What do all those package codes and numbers mean on cans and boxes? How can I tell how fresh the product is?
A: Unfortunately, just like in the case of freshness dating, there are no mandatory or universal standards for these codes. One way to decipher the codes is to call a manufacturer's toll-free number and ask. But that's not always practical, especially while you're shopping. Here are some basic guidelines: Let's use as an example a code of J128W3. The first letter, J, denotes the month of manufacture. Most food companies start their manufacturing year in June and start their coding with the letter A. That means that A is June and J refers to February. (Manufacturers don't use the letter I because it is easily confused with the number 1.) The first number, 1, usually refers to the last number in the year of manufacture. In this case, it's safe to assume that it refers to 2001, not 1991, since most products don't have a 10-year shelf life. The next two numbers--2 and 8--are the exact days of manufacture: 28. So far, with J528, the manufacturing date would be Feb. 28, 2001. Next we have the W3. Here's where you have to call the manufacturer for clarification. Usually, the last numbers are a plant designation that tells at which plant, and during which production shift, the product was manufactured.
Phil Lempert is the food correspondent for NBC's "Today" show. He welcomes questions about healthful food shopping but regrets that he cannot respond to every query. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. or Before You Bite, Los Angeles Times Health section, 202 W. 1st St., Los Angeles, CA 90012.