The Eldritch Horror of Date Formatting is visited upon Tesco

Best before end? Who reads those things anyway?

baby in trolley

Date formatting is one of the many banes of a programmer's existence. Pity, therefore, the Tesco customer presented with a date in the Julian format.

Many developers experience a slight eyelid twitch when date formatting comes up.

For sport, try mocking a greybeard about the two digits used to describe the year in older systems, and then insist that the Y2K bug was all made up by greedy contractors who did nothing but quaff champagne rather than toil long into the night to deal with the consequences of decades-old decisions.

However, suppliers of a relish to be applied to UK grocer Tesco's burgers did not only stick with YY for the year, but selected a format seemingly guaranteed to befuddle a customer.

The Best Before End (at least we assume that's what BBE means) date helpfully stamped on the relish packet read "20140".

Doubtless keen to crack on with enjoying a barbecue on that most rare of British events – a sunny weekend, the customer contacted Tesco to find out if the concoction was safe to smear.

There ensued some back and forth with the hardworking Tesco operative until "Maggie" finally came back with an answer:

The date was in the Julian date format. Thus 20140 meant things would be fine and dandy until the 140th day of 2020 or, as Maggie said, 20 May 2020. Of course, Maggie may have forgotten that 2020 is a leap year, so the date might actually have been the 19th.

Such are the japes to be had in the world of date formatting.

Some wags confused poor Maggie's explanation with the Julian Calendar, which would be an entirely different bag of pedantic monkeys.

Since we in Vulture Central prefer to think of "Julian Date" as when Saint Assange will be given his marching orders from the clink, we'll stick with "ordinal date" instead. It's a handy way to save a byte or so of mainframe storage and also makes for easier calendar calculation.

ISO 8601 specifies how it should be used (along with myriad other ways of describing dates.)

However, it isn't particularly readable, even though it does crop up in logistics. The US military has made use of it, but since much of the US insists on the barking mad month/day/year format, going ordinal can only be an improvement.

We contacted Tesco to check if it was merely a formatting snafu or if those Y2K consultants were required once again to work their magic on date storage techniques.

A Tesco spokesperson told us: "The Julian date code is used by our supplier for internal traceability purposes. The standard best before date is printed on the outside of the main packaging." It needlessly continued, while we groaned: "We're sorry if any of our customers got in a pickle about this and we have relished the chance to put the record straight." ®

* Thanks to Reg reader John for the tip.

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