The statistics of food waste are staggering. It’s estimated that a family of four throws away $2,275 each year in food. Some of it is from leftovers not eaten at meals. Some of it is produce that has gone bad because it wasn’t eaten in time. But, a lot of it is thrown away because of the confusing dates stamped on packages.

Yesterday, I asked my Facebook friends what the “use by” date meant to them. The answers from my friends are incredibly varied. Here are just some of the responses I received:

  • I use it by the date and honestly I cringe when it gets close to the date. I know it's all mental and I'm being a baby. I'm sure it's fine to use a couple of days past, but I won't.       
  • The food is not good after that date and I always throw away... No matter what it is. Can of soup, pasta, cereal. All trashed

  • Screw those dates. Arbitrary. Empower yourself and use your senses. Does it look smell or taste gross? No, then eat it!

  • 'Use by' is a guideline. Scratch 'n sniff is more effective.   
  • If it has a use by date I do not use it after that date, no matter what. I'm a little picky with that. So to me, it means that it will go bad after that date. If a food has gone past that date, I throw it away.               
  • Depends on what the product is, if is milk I throw it away at the use by date. Same with canned goods but dry products I am willing to use past that          
  • Sniff it before deciding whether or not to use/eat!

  • I am super picky about those dates, I will not use it if it is past the date, I will throw it in the trash. The date says use by or expires by such and such date I seriously can't eat it.
  • I completely ignore them and go by smell/taste/perception.

  • I don't worry about the use by date. I use the smell test. With only milk I pay attention to the sell by date.
  • Use it by that date. if the date passes, you toss it. duh.

  • Often it says "best if used by." I look at it, smell it and make a decision based on what it is. I have been doing this for years and nothing has ever made me sick...

  • It's a good suggestion, and unless its a refrigerated item usually earlier than it really needs to be. Even with refer items, with the exception of fresh meats you generally have more time to use the products. I would actually rather have the date of production on the product.
One thing was clear to me. The dates on food are very confusing. Another thing was clear; many of my friends are throwing away perfectly good food. I posed the question because of a recent report published by the Natural Resources Defense Council, The Dating Game: How Confusing Food Labels Lead to Waste in America.
Here's a superbly-kept secret: All those dates on food products -- sell by, use by, best before -- almost none of those dates indicate the safety of food, and generally speaking, they're not regulated in the way many people believe. The current system of expiration dates misleads consumers to believe they must discard food in order to protect their own safety. In fact, the dates are only suggestions by the manufacturer for when the food is at its peak quality, not when it is unsafe to eat.
The study goes on to say that “confusion over dates, according to a survey by the Food Marketing Institute, leads nine out of 10 Americans to needlessly throw away food.” After surveying my friends, that’s easy to believe.

The NDRC is recommending that three changes be made to the dates on food.

  1. Make "sell by" dates invisible to the consumer. Those dates are guidelines for stores, not consumers.
  2. Establish a reliable, coherent, and uniform consumer-facing dating system. That would be very helpful. I did a quick search in my kitchen to see what was on my food packages. Here’s what I found in a two-minute search.
  • Best before
  • Use or freeze by
  • Better if used by
  • Sell by
  • Best by
  • Use by
  • Best when used by
  • Dates (with no words associated with them)
  • I had two containers of blue cheese crumbles from two different manufacturers in my refrigerator. One had a “sell by” date; one had a “use by” date. There doesn’t seem to be a uniform system even for specific products.

      3. Increase the use of safe handling instructions and "smart labels.” 

The NDRC’s report seems like a good start to helping clear up the confusion over food dates. At the very least, it points out that many of the dates are arbitrary and aren’t hard-and-fast “throw away by” dates.

How do you handle the dates stamped on your food?

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

'Use by' dates contribute to unnecessary food waste
Consumers are confused by what the dates stamped on food products mean, and that confusion is adding to the food waste problem.