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Deciphering food date labels

How do you determine whether or not your groceries have gone bad? If you rely fully on the “use by” or “expires by” date, there’s a good chance you’re throwing out perfectly good food. Many Americans admit confusion when it comes to “sell by,” “best by,” “expires by” and “use by” stamps on food labels. In fact, the uncertainty leads to $161 billion in food being trashed by American consumers each year. But believe it or not, the labels have little to do with food safety.

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Decades ago, food date labels were created as a way for manufacturers to advise retailers on how long they could stock an item. There has never been federal oversight over date labels, with the exception of infant formula, which is required to have a “use by” date. In some cases, logic does play a role in food date labels. Larger companies, for example, may set dates by hiring taste testers to sample a product at different periods, then report when the taste changes. At many smaller companies however, dates are simply picked out of thin air, with very little rhyme or reason. In most cases, the estimates are conservative, meaning the food is still OK to eat long past the “best by” date.

Here’s the breakdown on how to read food date labels:

“Sell by” — Helps retailers ensure proper product turnover when stocking shelves; it’s not a measure of food safety

“Best by” or “best before” — Set by the manufacturer to suggest when to consume the food for best flavor or quality, not a measure of food safety, as there may be no rhyme or reason behind the date

“Use by” — The last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality; while it’s typically recommended to follow this date, many foods can be safely consumed after this date

Considering the amount of waste caused by label confusion, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration doesn’t want consumers to rely solely on date labels to judge when it’s time to toss food. The FDA is encouraging companies to simply use “best if used by” labels on groceries if the purpose is to “indicate the date when a product will be at its best flavor and quality.”

So as a consumer, how can you determine if a food is safe to eat? Check the “use by” date, but use other forms of judgment to help reduce food waste. If the product has changed noticeably in color, consistency, scent or texture, it’s a good indication that its past the point of safe consumption.

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