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‘Best by’ dates are confusing and leading to waste. How to know if your food is still good

The FDA is now recommending that manufacturers use the “best if used by” label for freshness, and “use by” for perishables like milk.

From eggs and orange juice to our upcoming holiday meals, food prices are up and with people around the country facing record inflation, every dollar counts. Now, the federal government says that confusion over the date labels on food packaging could be a major reason that people across the country are tossing perfectly good food in the trash and money down the drain.

“Best by” labels on food have led to confusion and wasted food, and because of this, the government has decided to step in. According to the FDA, Americans waste 133 billion pounds of food, worth about $161 billion, per year; the agency said it's become especially important to clear up the confusion on date labels to prevent wasted food.

That’s why it may be surprising to learn that, while manufacturers are prohibited from placing false or misleading information on a label, they are not required to obtain approval of the labels they use, according to the FDA. They also aren’t required to tell officials how they arrived at the date they’ve applied, which might lead to wasted food, specifically in our fridges and pantries.

This might be why there’s such confusion over food “sell by” labels. One survey found that 91% of consumers throw away their food too early because they don’t understand the labeling on the food they’re tossing.

Further, up to 40% of the food supply in the states goes uneaten according to the Food and Drug Administration and every year, and uneaten food accounts for $1,500 lost by the average American family of four.

All of this comes as inflation has caused grocery prices to soar 13.5% over the last year. But there is hope: Officials say there are ways to make sure that you’re well-earned perishables don’t go to waste.

“A product can be beyond the ‘best if used by’ date and still be safe and of appropriate quality for consumers to use,” said Susan Mayne, Director, FDA Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, Who  adds that the FDA only regulates labels when it comes to infant formula. Mayne also said that most labels only indicate peak freshness and not safety.

“It really means that this is a quality date and not anything that you can’t consume a product after that. And knowing when a product is at its best quality, it’s not really an exact science,” she said.

These inconsistent labels have now prompted officials to push for standardized terminology in food label packaging. The FDA is now recommending that manufacturers use the “best if used by” label for freshness, and “use by” for perishables like milk, hoping that this will curb the amount of food waste headed to the trash heap.

Mayne also suggests that consumers pay attention to a food’s consistency or texture before digging into a item that might be expired. She also urges folks to smell their foods as well — checking for a difference from when they first opened the package — as that’s often an indicator of the food beginning to rot.

4 ways to help reduce food waste

1. Avoid bulk and impulse purchases

Produce and dairy products go bad faster than shelf-stable items. Even so, canned food does lose flavor over time and there are still precautions to take when considering consuming stored canned food, like the acidity of the food inside.

2. Refrigerate leftovers

When bringing home leftovers after eating out, try to refrigerate them within two hours. You can keep leftovers safely in the fridge for three to four days; after that, the risk of food poisoning goes up, so freeze them if you’re planning on eating them past that time.

3. Use your freezer

The freezer is the perfect space to keep food for much longer than if the items were just sitting in your refrigerator. Poultry and other meats, for example, can last in the freezer for months when they can only last for weeks or even days in the fridge.

4. Use mobile apps

Families can also use the FoodKeeper app to find out when to throw away specific food items. For example, if you search "deli meat" within the app, it says you should eat it within three to five days if refrigerated from the day to purchase, and one to two months if frozen.