A confusing system of food labeling has led to consumers throwing away billions of dollars worth of food products every year, and much of that food is completely safe to eat.
As a result, the U.S. grocery industry is taking steps to simplify food labels, with the goal of reducing waste and helping households save money.
"A lot of people confuse quality and safety," food research scientist Linda Harris said. "That's a big problem."
Harris is the chair of Food Science and Technology at the University of California, Davis. She said most food is perfectly safe to eat past the date on the label. That's because most dates on food are not "expiration" dates. They actually tell consumers when peak freshness or flavor drops off.
"The date is meant to signal quality," Harris said. "It's not a safety issue."
Some consumers may be surprised to learn federal law requires an actual expiration date on only one food product: baby formula. Every other date you see on food is voluntary, under federal standards.
"It's not illegal to sell a product past its 'best-by' date," she said.
So, even the beef with no date at all meets federal criteria.
Without clear government guidelines, we're bombarded with terms:
- Best By
- Expires On
- Use By
- Best Flavor By
- Sell By
- Enjoy By
The meanings vary, and so does the science used to calculate the date. Megan Stasz of the Grocery Manufacturers Association says that's a problem for ordinary shoppers.
"What the confusion leads to is consumers unnecessarily throwing away some food when it might still be good to eat," Stasz said.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates as much as 40 percent of all food grown, produced and shipped in the U.S. will never be eaten. That amounts to about 218 pounds of food per person per year, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. It will end up in landfills, in part because consumers don't understand the labels.
That should change this summer. The Grocery Manufacturers Association is telling companies to start using either "Best if Used By" or "Use By."
"Rather than having 10 or 20 phrases on your food products now, you'll just see one of two," Stasz said.
Most products will get "Best if Used By", since the association said most food "is safe to use or consume" after the date.
The remaining few product date labels will read "Use By." Stasz said that's reserved for highly perishable food, that could pose a health risk after the date on the label. "Maybe something like a sliced deli meat or raw shellfish that would have that food safety concern over time," she said.
Food experts are hungry to teach families about the new labels and help them stop wasting so much food.
"In turn, that can help them save money, which I think is a win for everybody," Stasz said.
The new labels are voluntary, and federal law remains mostly silent. If you ever suspect you were sold spoiled food, you may report it locally.