Don't let food date label confusion make you throw out perfectly good food - and money

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When the date label on your food gets close to the actual calendar date, a lot of people throw the food away. If you're one of them, food safety experts say you're wasting hundreds, even thousands of dollars.

A lot of people assume the date stamp on food means that's when the food expires. But it doesn't.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture figures consumer and retail confusion about date labels is one reason Americans waste 30 percent or more of our annual food supply. The estimates average out to nearly 1 pound of wasted food per person, per day.

In reality, date labels on food are not an indication of food going bad.

"None of those dates indicate safety," said Eyob Mazengia, Ph.D Food Program Manager at the King County Department of Public Health.

Dr. Mazengia tracks and investigates food safety risks, and says food that happens to be days beyond the label date is not on the hazard list. What happens after that date?

"Nothing happens after that date, except the higher likelihood that the quality might deteriorate. You can consume the product," said Mazengia. "But the quality may not match what the manufacturers think is optimum."

It's a quality thing. According to the USDA, "BEST BY," "USE BY" and "BEST BEFORE" simply indicate "when a product will be of best flavor or quality," as determined by the manufacturer. Safety's not a factor.

The only exception is with infant formula. In fact, baby formula is the only food where date labels are mandatory and mean do not use the formula after that date.

With everything else, the product is still considered nutritious even if the package date has past. As a general rule, as long as the food has been handled and stored properly, and not compromised in any way, Mazengia and other food safety experts say most foods can safely be consumed up to a week after the date on the label.

"The good thing is that products do spoil to the point where people would be less likely to consume them," Mazengia explained. "You would actually either smell it, or you will know that the product has spoiled to the point where you would know that it's not safe for you to consume it. Does it smell? Does it have a strong odor? Does it have visible mold or other signs of spoilage?"

Bottom line: Just because a food product is past the date that is marked, doesn't mean that it's not safe. If the food is really old, by all means, get rid of it. But as long as it's been properly stored and handled, with no cross-contamination, food safety experts say we can safely consume and get full nutrition from most foods, up to 5-to-7 days after the date on the label.

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