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Would You Eat It? Should you Eat It? What do the "best if used by" dates on food labels really mean?

You're trying to decide what to make for dinner and your eye catches perfectly ripe avocadoes on the counter. Yes! Quesadillas with fresh pico de gallo and guacamole! Searching for the other ingredients you come across wilted cilantro and jarred salsa that's past date. Not exactly the fresh ingredients you had in mind. You question whether to make the quesadillas with these ingredients. Would anyone eat them? Truth test--would you eat one?

Label Mania. Faced with this situation at least 20-30% of Americans would dump the idea along with the ingredients. But the cilantro can be revived and even though the salsa has "expired," it's probably still safe to eat. That's because the label dating system for U.S. foods isn't an exact science regulated at a federal level or even required (except for infant formula). "Sell by," "best before," "best by," and other variations of date labeling are typically referring to quality, not safety.

Consumers mistakenly think the date labels are for food safety reasons so err on the side of caution and pitch the product if it's past date. Usually it's perfectly safe to eat a product past its quality date if it's been handled correctly. And by the same token, a fresh or high quality food product won't necessarily taste bad if it's unsafe to eat.

So, What Do We DO? A few years ago, USDA and the food industry agreed to streamline product date labels to reduce consumer confusion. They recommended the terms "best if used by" and "use by." The "best if used by" date indicates the time period when the product's taste and performance is at its peak. Eating it after this date would still be safe. FDA has just agreed to the voluntary use of this term. Industry's use of the "use by" term applies to perishable product that should be consumed by the date on the package and discarded after that date. FDA is not endorsing use of "use by" product date label and instead, has issued a wealth of information on food safety. Their concern is the amount of unnecessary food waste generated by "use by" dates.

--Tamara Schryver, PhD, RD

Food waste hacks:

* Learn how to store foods and for how long using USDA's FoodKeeper app

* Always plan meals In advance and shop with a corresponding grocery list

* Inspect and sniff a food item if it's past its "best if used by" date. Significant change in color, consistency, and texture may indicate spoilage. Otherwise, use it!

[c] Digital Vision | Getty Images

Caption: Think carefully before deciding whether to try a product past its labeled prime.

Please Note: Illustration(s) are not available due to copyright restrictions.

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Title Annotation:You Should Know
Author:Schryver, Tamara
Publication:Environmental Nutrition
Date:Sep 1, 2019
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