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Why you may be wasting perfectly safe food

A fresh look at food expiration labels 03:19

Ninety-one percent of Americans toss their food after the date on the labels have passed, but in many cases, they may actually be wasting perfectly safe food.

There are three types of dates used on food labels: "sell by," "best if used by," and "use by." But all three have nothing to do with food safety. Rather, they signal how long the manufacturer thinks the food will taste best.

"So the manufacturer will do taste tests with consumers and say, 'this is when everyone still thought my product tasted good,' and they're not about safety, but many people throw food away," said Emily Broad Leib, director of Harvard's Food Law and Policy Clinic.

Here's what those terms really mean:

  • Sell by - How long the store may display product
  • Best if used by - Date for best flavor or quality
  • Use by - Peak quality determined by manufacturer

"Food safety means it was contaminated, you could get E.coli or salmonella, something like that.... We want to eat food that tastes good, that's good quality, but it's much more subjective," Leib said. "You're not going to get sick if you eat something. It's just about what you think tastes good."

Some products are fine to consume after the indicated date -- even milk, which is pasteurized to kill any harmful contaminants.

"Even if smells bad, it's actually not unsafe, it's just about quality and taste," Leib said.

The issue is that there is currently no national system for food dating. Last month Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, introduced a new bill to create a standard federal date labeling system to "reduce confusion, simplify regulatory compliance for companies, and reduce the waste of food and money."

This could help reduce the food waste problem in America -- over 40 percent of the food we produce goes to waste -- and would also eliminate the dizzying array of food labels by categorizing food in two simple categories.

"All the quality dates we talked about would now say 'best if used by' and the small handful of foods where there is a safety risk would say 'expires on,'" Leib explained. "So you'd be able to open up your refrigerator and know, these foods I can eat after the date if they still taste good to me, and these ones are the ones that I maybe should throw away."

The bill would also require the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to compile a list of products that should have expiration dates, including deli meats, unpasteurized cheeses and prepared foods that could become unsafe if kept too long.

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