Health & Wellness

Is it safe to eat? New food labels will make it easier to know

When grocery shopping, there are nearly a dozen different types of labels that describe the freshness of food and produce. Labels such as "Sell By", "Use By", "Expires On" or "Best Before" — what do they really mean?

So it's great news for consumers that the Food Marketing Institute and the Grocery Manufacturers Association want to help clear up the confusion over food packaging. They want two simple phrases — "Use by" and "Best if used by" — on labels. While these are voluntary, and individual food companies are not mandated to follow them, it's a big step to solve a problem has stumped grocery shoppers for decades.

The USDA has always encouraged a solution: it estimates that around $161 billion dollars in food, about 30-40 percent of food in the U.S., is wasted. Some of that waste is because we don't know if our food is spoiled or safe to eat.

While most people talk about food expiration dates, few packages use that label. Only infant formula includes an "expires on" date that mandates removal from supermarket shelves. That's because the formula contents can separate, and potentially clog the nipple on the bottle. And any infant formula already purchased, and reaching the expiration date should be discarded.

Related: Clean your fridge: What to keep or toss

Most label dates refer to optimal taste, flavor, and appearance — and have nothing to do with food safety.

The new labels should be in place by the summer of 2018. Here's what's coming to a supermarket near you:

Use by

This new label applies to select products that are highly perishable — food like meats, seafood or milk stored in the fridge — that may have a food safety risk over time. These foods should be discarded, if not consumed by the date labeled on the package. But once a package is opened, the "use by" date is no longer the only date to pay attention to: you also need to consider the date the package was open.

Some foods already list a recommended period for use after opening, before throwing out.

Best if used by

This is to used on items you store on the shelf like peanut butter, bread, cookies or pasta. The new "best if used by" label is not related to safety, only quality factors like appearance, taste, and optimal freshness.

Eating these foods after that date might not be as tasty or seem as fresh, but they are safe to consume.

Reducing consumer confusion about food labels can definitely reduce food waste. This both helps consumers save money and supports a cleaner environment, with less discarded food in landfills.

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