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Food for Thought: Clearing Up Confusion About Food Waste — and How to Reduce It

Confused by date labels on packaged foods? You’re not alone. Our supermarket gurus give you the lowdown on what’s still okay to eat and what’s not.

If you’re confused about what the dates on food at the grocery store mean — and what’s safe to eat and what’s not — you’re not alone.

Consumer uncertainty about the meaning of dates on packaged food contributes to a significant amount of food waste.

Just how much food do Americans waste? Here’s some “food” for thought: While the world wastes about 1.4 billion tons of food every year, the United States discards more food than any other country in the world: nearly 40 million tons per year. That’s estimated to be 30%-40% of the entire U.S. food supply, equating to 219 pounds of waste per person.

This all begins in grocery store aisles. Think about it: What does “sell by,” “expires on” and “use before” really mean? And when we don’t understand, do we toss? Let’s start with these expert tips from our food safety team.

Setting Industry Standards

To address this confusion and reduce food waste, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is working to standardize the use of the term “best if used by” on packaged-food labeling when the date is simply related to optimal quality — not safety. Studies have shown that this term best conveys to consumers that these products do not have to be discarded after the date if they are stored properly.

Educating Consumers

The FDA is also working alongside the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Agriculture to help educate consumers on ways to reduce food loss and waste, and how to do so safely without risking illness from consuming spoiled food.

How It Works

In the United States, manufacturers provide dating to help consumers and retailers decide when food is of the best quality. Except for infant formula, dates are not an indicator of the product’s safety and are not required by federal law. Date labels in the European Union are required for almost all products.

In addition to indicating quality and flavor, date labels can also be used for food safety, for the ripeness of a product and for those products where you cannot see the quality without opening the packaging. Use-by dates can be useful in these scenarios. To create the labels, food manufacturers undertake a series of micro and chemical tests to determine the use-by dates, considering organoleptic (taste, sight, smell and touch) properties, food safety and disease-causing germs. Suppliers undertake specific testing to ensure that food is safe for consumers and will list the date based on the results.


The best approach is to examine the foods in your kitchen cabinet or fridge if they are past the best-if-used-by date. Look for color, texture, or smell changes, and determine if you want to avoid eating them.

European Labeling Specifics

The best-before date is the date by which the food retains its specific properties when properly stored. In the case of foods that may pose an immediate danger to human health, manufacturers employ the use-by date. After the use-by-date, the food should not be eaten.

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