Food waste is a big problem: Americans estimate they toss $640 worth of food each year, according to a new survey from the American Chemical Council. And an earlier analysisby the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) found that consumers to throw away approximately 133 billion (!) pounds total of wasted food a year.
Confusion over those tinydate stamp on food products is a big part of the problem.
Thats because, whilethey may sound similar, use-by, sell-by, and best-by dates actually mean three different things when it comes to food safety. Andnone ofthese dates are literal expiration dates that reflect exactly when a product will become harmful or dangerous to eat. They only mark the point at which its reached peak quality, consistency, or flavorleading to a lot of confusion and still-good food thrown out before its time, according to the IFT.
To help you decidewhen its really time to toss that carton of milk, weve laidout the differences between common dates youll find on food packaging.
You should, theoretically, eat food before thisdate, whichis based more on when the quality of the product will go down than the chance that it will make you sick. But quality is likely to go down much faster and safety could be lessened after this point, Bob Brackett, PhD, director of the Institute for Food Safety and Health, noted in a press release. So when in doubt, its a good rule of thumb to throw food outon or very close tothis date.
Much like the use-by date, this number tells consumers when a product should be eaten toguarantee ideal flavor and quality, not when a food will go bad.
This marking informs retailers of the date by which they should sell the product or remove it from store shelves. Foodis still safe for at-home consumption well after this point. In fact, according to Brackett, typically one-third of a products shelf life remains after the sell-by date for the consumer to use at home.
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Bottom line: While these dates are guidelinesand a good starting pointtheyre not going to help you determine when food will make you sick, or even when exactly you should throw it out. The good news is, most food takes longer than youd think to go bad.
Always try to make sure your cold food stays cold and that your cooked food stays hot, since bacteria multiply the fastest between 40 degrees and 140 degrees. To keep them from growing, refrigerate food at less than 40 degrees, and reheat cooked leftovers to at least 165 degrees. And keep in mind the2-2-4 rule of thumb: Dont leave food out longer than 2 hours, refrigerate it in containers less than 2 inches deep, and use or freeze all refrigerated leftovers before 4 days.
For even more in-depth pointers on when you should really toss specific food items out,look to siteslike The Food Keeper, a web sites with a searchable database of guidelines for storing and keeping everything from cereal to baby food safe, as well as Foodsafety.gov.