TODAY   |  October 08, 2013

Rossen Reports: Confusing dates on foods cost you money

TODAY’s Jeff Rossen investigates a new study that says those “sell by” and “use by” dates on foods aren’t what consumers think they are, leading them to discard foods that may be still good weeks, months or even years past those dates.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> we're back at 7:40. are you throwing away perfectly good food? it turns out the sell by and use by dates may not be what you think and it could be costing you a lot of money. jeff rossen is good on that.

>> good morning. we're going to save you some serious money this morning. if you're anything like me, i have a feeling you are, before you eat anything you check the date. if it's passed you chuck it in the garbage but this morning throw out everything you know. there's a new study that says the use by dates on the labels have nothing to do with food safety . in fact, the food may still be good for weeks, months, even years past the date.

>> reporter: go to the grocery store and the stamps are on everything. use by, sell by, better if used by, best if used by. what does it all mean.

>> no good.

>> reporter: for this mother of two, it means toss anything past the date so her family doesn't get sick.

>> i fear what might be seeping into the cans or what kind of bacteria is growing in there. i have no idea.

>> reporter: in fact, americans chuck 160 billion pounds of food every year. an average family of four throwing away $1,560. but hang on, a lot of that out of date food is perfectly good. in fact, this new study from harvard and the nrdc finds those sell by dates are confusing and misleading.

>> people think these are expiration dates. they think if they eat the food after this date they're going to get sick but it's not true.

>> reporter: emily is the lead author of the study. she says food can be totally safe well past the date. from cereal, to salad dressings, even eggs.

>> when i see use by or sell by on a product, what does that mean?

>> it has nothing to do with safety at all. it's just a manufacturers best guess of when that food will be the freshest and at the best quality.

>> reporter: and how inferrers come up with those dates? it's often ugh regulated and varying from state to state.

>> if i eat food past the date i'm not going to get sick.

>> there's not a single instance of food bourn illness or poisoning after that date.

>> reporter: all of this a game changer for jennifer who says she is going to hold on to her food longer.

>> i think it would definitely save me some money.

>> that one is still good.

>> there are products with expiration dates on them, exp, one is infant formula . that's tightly controlled and we also think a lot about milk and fresh meats. those dates are pretty accurate.

>> we have products here and you'll go through them. dairy, you get into dairy and meat, people basically adhere to those dates.

>> yeah, you should.

>> eggs, though?

>> no, that's the surprising thing. when you buy eggs and see the sell by or use by dates on it, it usually go a couple of days after that. eggs are good to three to five weeks after that. write down the date you bought it. it's good up to five weeks after that.

>> cereal, crackers, how long after these?

>> nine months to a year they'll stay good if they remain unopened. not only should you not throw this out but if your local grocery store is having a sell, you can put them in your cabinet and save money.

>> condiments, mustard, ketchup, salad dressing and mayonnaise. most people probably hold these past the date.

>> remind me not to come over to your house for dinner.

>> i think they do.

>> but mayonnaise too.

>> i wouldn't do that.

>> it's okay. it has nothing to do with food safety . these can last and that includes mayonnaise for one and a half years after you buy it if they remain unopened.

>> if my house we have never gotten past the expiration date on ketchup. we go through that quickly. same with peanut butter .

>> this is the real shocker, if you keep these unopened, three to four years peanut butter will stay good. god knows what's in it.

>> once you open it, pay more attention to these dates. it's all about the smell test just like you would do with milk, for any of these products, smell it. if it smells bad you probably shouldn't eat it. if you see active mold on it, you can scrape that off and still taste it. this is about freshness. you can eat it and probably not get sick.

>> but it's still keeping your family safe and saving you a lot of money.