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America Is Finally Getting Food Expiration Labels That Will Make Sense

If you still rely on the smell test—because arbitrary "best by" dates still leave you wondering whether you'll die from eating that three-week-old sour cream—you’re not alone.
Photo via Flickr user Michelle Tribe

Anyone who has ever rooted around in a refrigerator (so, pretty much everyone) has struggled with deciphering the "best before," "sell by," and "use by" dates stamped on perishable foods. If you still rely on the smell test—because those dates still leave you wondering whether you'll die from eating that three-week-old sour cream—you're not alone. The myriad ways food is labeled with some sort of "expiration" date leads many people to toss perfectly good stuff for fear of unseen cooties.


It's become a huge problem, with many grocery stores throwing away tons of perfectly good food just because it's passed its arbitrary "sell by" date, which is supposedly an indicator of quality, and certainly not safety. Researchers have found 91 percent of consumers consider "sell by" dates to be expiration dates. The confusion helps lead to roughly 40 percent of food produced in the US winding up in the landfill.

READ MORE: The USDA Wants You to Eat That Old Stuff at the Very Back of Your Pantry

In an effort to clear up the confusion and cut down food waste, Congress is now reviewing proposed legislation that would cut through the crap: the Food Date Labeling Act would require food nationwide to be labeled "best if used by" for shelf-stable foods and "expires on" for things like meat, fish, and eggs.

"Before taking a swig of milk, many Americans glance quickly at the date label and toss it away, without realizing that it still may be perfectly safe to consume," Senator Richard Blumenthal, who introduced the legislation with Congresswoman Chellie Pingree, said in a press release. "Items at the grocery store are stamped with a jumble of arbitrary food date labels that are not based on safety or science."

And once those items pass those sell-by dates, they usually can't be donated to food shelters and end up at the dump. Blumenthal and Pingree hope their bill helps cut down food waste, which the Environmental Protection Agency and US Department of Agriculture hope half by 2030.

READ MORE: A New Danish Supermarket Chain Will Sell Only Dented or Expired Food

A family of four throws away an average of $1,560 of food each year, according to the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic's 2013 report. If you aren't sure about something and want to know if chowing down on that weird tasting olive oil is going to kill you, you can always check an expiration date site like StillTasty.

If the bill passes, companies will have two years to adopt the new labeling standards. Until then, don't believe everything that you read. The nose knows.