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What dates on food really mean

Food
Concerned woman looks at meat.

Use by? Sell by? Best if used by? The dates on food packaging can be confusing – so confusing that sometimes people mistakenly think their food is unsafe and throw it out.
A 2018 study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture found the average American tosses away nearly one pound of food per day. A big factor in food waste is a lack of understanding about what the dates on food labels mean. Research conducted by the Natural Resources Defense Council found that 90 percent of Americans misunderstand the dates on labels and toss food that could still be eaten or frozen for later consumption.

Not regulated

It may come as a surprise that the ”sell by,” “use by” and “best if used by” dates on food packages or cans – with the exception of baby formula – are not regulated by the federal government. Instead those dates are manufacturers’ best estimates of how long their food will taste freshest.
“It can be very confusing for the consumer,” says Jamie Kandora, a registered dietitian and clinical nutrition manager at Tidelands Health. “People often don’t understand what the dates mean. They don’t necessarily mean a product isn’t safe after a specific date.”

Definitions

Here’s what the labels mean:
Best if used by/before: This indicates the date by which a product will taste best or most fresh.
Sell By: This is a date established by manufacturers to communicate to retailers when they should remove a product from the shelf. The objective is to make certain that a consumer will have the product at its peak quality, but it doesn’t mean the food has gone bad. For example, milk and other dairy products can last five to seven days past their sell-by date, depending on when they are opened, storage conditions and other factors. .
Use By: This is the final date that guarantees the peak quality of the product. It is not a safety date unless displayed on infant formula.

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If you happen upon a food package and wonder if it’s OK to eat, the USDA has established a free app called FoodKeeper that will help you figure out how soon specific items, ranging from dry cereal to barbecue sauce to tomato paste, should be consumed if they are stored in a cabinet or how long they will last in the refrigerator after being opened.

Tips

Here are Kandora’s suggestions for getting the most out of your groceries:
Rotate food: When you’re putting groceries away, place your most recently purchased food at the back of your cabinet or refrigerator and move older products to the front.
“It’s always good to rotate food on a first-in, first-out basis to help ensure you eat the food in a timely manner,” Kandora says.
Shop with a list: Reduce your chances of buying something you won’t use by always shopping with a list and sticking to it.
Regular check-ups: “Go through your fridge or pantry at least once a month to be sure you’re finding things while they are still at peak freshness,” Kandora says.
By paying more attention to your food, Kandora says you’ll be less likely to throw things out because they’re past their prime or have gone bad. Pay especially close attention to meat and dairy products, she says, noting that meat can be frozen and will be good for up to six months.
While it may seem wasteful to toss unopened cans or other food, she says it is best to err on the side of caution if you have a concern.
“When in doubt, throw it out,” she says.

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