"Best by," "use by," "sell by" — there are many variations on the labels on food packaging, and it's confusing. According to the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), there are "roughly 50 different versions of labels currently being used nationwide." No wonder there's so much confusion and waste!

In December 2016, the United States Department of Agriculture asked manufacturers of daily, meat and egg products to use a universal "Best if Used By" date on all products to clear up the confusion and to help the U.S. achieve its food waste goal of a 50 percent reduction by 2030. In response, in February 2017 the two major food industry associations in the U.S. created two standard labels. The Food Marketing Institute and the Grocery Manufacturers Association have suggested:

  • "Best if used by" will be used to communicate peak quality, but the product will still be safe to consume after the date.
  • "Use by" will be used to communicate that a product is highly perishable and/or has food safety concerns over time.

The use of these labels is voluntary, but if all food manufacturers adopt these two labels, I think it will clear up a lot of consumer confusion and save a lot of perfectly good food from being thrown away.

Many people throw food away when it reaches the date on the package, fearing food eaten past that date will make them ill. But current labels can be arbitrary on this point; the date is often a food manufacturer's best guess as to when the product passes its peak quality — even though the food is still perfectly safe to eat. This is certainly true of processed, packaged foods in cans and boxes, which can be edible for years past the date, but it can also be true of fresh foods like milk and other dairy products, meat and eggs, which can be good for many days past the date on the label.

Looking at labels when you shop

Shopping Cart View in Supermarket Aisle How fast can you complete your shopping trip? If one type of label would disappear, it would certainly go faster. (Photo: Kawi Chumrak/Shutterstock)

In the past, in an effort to help lessen food waste, the USDA encouraged consumers to ignore "sell-by" dates on some foods, mainly shelf-stable processed foods in cans and boxes. (The USDA does not regulate canned goods, packaged goods or produce, which is why the request was directed to consumers instead of food manufacturers. The FDA regulates those products, but the agency has not issued any guidelines or statements to manufacturers using a universal labeling system.)

“This will help keep perfectly good food from getting tossed in the trash," said Dana Gunders, senior scientist at the NRDC and author of the "Waste-Free Kitchen Handbook." "USDA is rallying the industry around one commonsense label so consumers will know that food is still safe to eat even past the printed date. This will not only mean less wasted food, but also less wasted water, climate pollution and money. The FDA should follow suit on the food it oversees so all products will have the same easy-to-follow date labels.”

In addition to clearing up confusion and curbing food waste, a universal "best if used by" date will help consumers stop throwing away edible food. It's estimated that most people throw away about 40 percent of the food they buy, and a family of four throws out an average of $2,275 in food every year.

I imagine a lot of people will still wonder when a food product has really gone bad and is no longer edible. There's a simple trick to that: if it looks bad, smells bad or tastes bad, don't eat it. That's a sure bet — unlike a manufacturer's arbitrary date.

Editor's note: This story was originally published in December 2016 and has been updated with new information.

Robin Shreeves ( @rshreeves ) focuses on food from a family perspective from her home base in New Jersey.