The terms sell by, use by, born on and best before on food packages often don't have much to do with whether the food is still safe, a Michigan State University Extension specialist says.
Michelle Jarvie, food safety, nutrition and physical activity education specialist, says the terms are simply manufacturer’s recommendations for when the food is at its peak freshness.
"None of these types of labels are federally regulated, except on infant formula, which is due to nutrient degradation, not spoilage," she says.
In some cases perishable foods have a recommended last day of sale. However, that’s also confusing, Jarvie says.
"It could be the last day in which the company’s research shows ideal color, texture, etc.," she says, or "It could be based on consumer reports on taste and general 'freshness.'"
The dates, however, do not indicate the safety of the food. According to Jarvie, Americans waste up to 50% of food produced domestically.
The waste can happen at all stages of production, including harvesting, packing or restaurant preparation.
"Sometimes crops are planted but never harvested; food is discarded at manufacturing and packing facilities because it doesn’t meet standard cosmetic requirements," she said.
On the household level, food waste due to misleading labels accounts for 20%of the food waste stream, costing $300-$500 a year per household.
Related: America Trashes 40% of Food Supply
"If we didn’t waste the amount of food we currently do, we would have enough land to produce food for the number of hungry people worldwide, twice," Jarvie said.
6 ways to reduce food waste in the home >>
Jarvie recommends six ways to reduce food waste in the home:
Consider the type of food before you throw it out: Non-perishable items are more likely to be safe past the date printed on the container.
Use your senses: "If it smells bad, tastes bad or looks off, it’s probably spoiled and you wouldn’t enjoy eating it," Jarvie says. "While it’s true that you can’t smell, taste or see food pathogens like bacteria, remember those dates have nothing to do with whether or not your food has been exposed to bacteria or viruses."
Consider weighing your food waste for a week: This will give you a good visual of how much it really is, and may help you realize that you’re wasting more money and resources than you thought, Jarvie says.
Buy the amount of food you actually need: Many times consumers buy in bulk because an item is on sale. Then half of it gets wasted because it couldn’t be consumed before it spoiled, Jarvie says.
Eat older foods first: This will ensure that foods purchased at an earlier date will get consumed before foods more recently purchased, she says.
Consider composting: If food must be thrown out, composted food turns into soil and is considered less wasteful that just throwing it in the garbage, Jarvie says.