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Study Finds Food Packaging "Sell By" Dates Gives Consumers Wrong Impression

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) -- Most food products have a date stamped on the package, but does it mean anything?

Consumers think so.

"They give you an indicator, and then, as I say, you learn from experience what dates you should pretty much adhere to religiously," says Don Carpenter, of Mount Washington.

But a 61-page study for the Natural Resources Defense Council and Harvard's Food Law and Policy Clinic found Americans pay too much attention to those dates, tossing out perfectly safe food products.

"If a manufacturer indicates that it shouldn't be used by a certain date, maybe you better adhere to what they're saying," says Ellie Groeneman, of Ross Township.

But Dana Gunders, who co-authored the report, says that's a big misunderstanding of what the date means.

Food suppliers, she says, use confusing language -- sell by, use by, best used by, or sometimes just a date itself -- and none of those dates imply anything unsafe about a product after the date.

"Those dates have nothing to do with the food safety," says Gunders. "They're really just a manufacturer's suggestion for when the food is at peak quality."

Because of consumer confusion, the study found, billions of dollars of food are thrown away.

"We waste about 40 percent of all the food that exists in this country," says Gunders.

That amounts to $475 worth of good food that families trash each year. With no federal standards and inconsistent state rules, Gunders says it's time for change.

"We'd really like to see a more standardized, reliable and coherent system of date labels in the U.S.," Gunders said.

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