study co-author

The Mistake That’s Costing You at the Grocery Store

Consumers are throwing out perfectly good food because of confusion over the dates stamped on food packaging, council says.

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What’s surprising:  nearly half of that food isn’t even being eaten!

According to research conducted by the National Resources Defense Council, 40 percent of the U.S. food supply is tossed – unused. That translates into more than $160 billion worth of edible food, wasted annually.

The NRDC says in many cases, consumers are throwing out perfectly good food because of confusion over the dates stamped on food packaging.

"Those dates you see on foods, ‘sell by’ or ‘use by,’ … are actually not federally regulated," says study co-author Dana Gunders, a staff scientist with the NRDC’s food and agriculture program. "They are not meant to indicate safety."

Here’s what the dates do indicate:

"Use By" or "Best By": These are typically the dates the manufacturer decides the product will reach peak freshness. The dates do not necessarily indicate spoilage, or that the food is unsafe to eat.

"Sell By": This date is aimed at manufacturers and retailers to help ensure proper turnover in the store, so the product will still have a long shelf-life once consumers take it home.

Gunders says it can be safe to eat foods weeks, even months, past these dates. Eggs, for example, can be good 3-5 weeks after their “sell by” date.

Of course, once you open the packaging, the clock starts ticking on freshness. No matter the date, if a food’s color doesn’t look right, or it emits a foul odor, you should probably toss it.

For more information, check out the interactive guide at

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