Open your fridge, and examine the labels on your food. No, not the nutrition labels, the ones that indicate if your food is still safe to eat. Based on the information you find, is your food still safe? Depending on which label your food carries, this may be a harder question than you think.
Many of us assume the three main labels (Sell by Date, Expiration Date, and Best if used by Date) mean the same thing. However, each of those three labels has a distinct meaning that may or may not tell you when you should throw out the food.
A new survey by the organization NSF International found almost half of Americans don’t throw away food until mold grows or the color changes because they are confused by the labels. Additionally, 17 percent of Americans simply throw food away when it begins to smell.
To clear up any confusion, here’s quick definition of each label:
“Sell by date” – most important for food retailers, tells them when they have to remove a product from their shelves. Does not mean food is no longer safe to eat.
“Expiration date” – a product shouldn’t be eaten after the date listed. You should throw it out after this date.
“Best if used by date” – does not refer to safety of product, but its quality. Product can be kept for a certain amount of time after this date, but will be below maximum quality.
Not understanding these labels can have serious consequences on your health. By failing to discard food on time, you could be exposing yourself to salmonella or E. coli.
Beyond the health risks, you could also be doing harm to your wallet if you’re pitching food that’s still good.
Around the same time the survey results were released, a review paper was published in the journal Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety stating confusing labels can cause people to throw away food too soon, leading to increased food waste.
According to figures from 2023, in the United States we waste about 133 billion pounds of food a year. If you need to see it in money terms, which translates to about $161.6 billion literally thrown away.
The authors of the study and the people who conducted the survey are now calling for a change to food labels to make them clearer. Suggestions include increased collaboration between the people who produce the food and regulatory agencies to create a more uniform food labeling system.
Hopefully the change happens soon. Until then, be sure to check twice before throwing out, or eating, food you think may be expired.