"Sell by." "Best before." What does it all mean?! Two big players in the grocery industry are hoping to finally put an end to the confusion and change the way your food's expiration date is labeled.

By By Sophie Dweck
Updated: February 17, 2017
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You're cleaning out your fridge and you see a product with a "Sell by" date that's already passed. You immediately wonder: Does that mean I really can't drink this juice? Or do I actually have a couple more days left? Ugh, should I just throw it away to be on the safe side!? Well, with any luck, this internal struggle is one you won't need to worry about for much longer, thanks to a new initiative by the grocery industry to put an end to ambiguous labels that do nothing but cause consumer confusion and a pile up of garbage. (Psst..here's how grocery shopping plays mind tricks on your brain.)

Currently, there are over 10 different date labels on packages including, "Sell By," "Use By," "Best Before," "Expires On," and "Better If Used By"-and sometimes just an ambiguous date with no other context. That's why the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) and the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) are asking companies and retailers to use standard wording on packaging across the board, in an effort to cut down on food waste. Both organizations are suggesting the use of two labels: "Best If Used By" and simply "Use By."

"Use By" would apply to the products that are highly perishable and/or have a food safety concern over time. These products should be consumed by the date listed on the package-and tossed after the date has passed-no wiggle room here. "Best If Used By" is meant to describe a product quality standard, saying that the product may not taste as well or perform as expected after that date, but is still safe to use or consume. (Like those tortilla chips you've had in your pantry for months that are crunchy in a bad way.)

ln addition to the burden that food waste has on your wallet, it's also a huge environmental issue: Currently, 44 percent of food that comes from consumers is sent to landfills. Simply addressing consumer confusion around product date labeling has the potential to decrease this number by 8 percent, according to the GMA. (Here, learn six ways to save money on groceries and stop wasting food.)

This isn't the first time the grocery industry has been pushing for such a reform. Since 2011, GMA and FMI joined with the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group, to reduce food waste by improving food labels. Even last year, the USDA encouraged the food industry to use a universal label on meat and dairy products. While this latest initiative is a voluntary standard, retailers and manufacturers are encouraged to immediately begin phasing in the two labels, with widespread adoption urged by the summer of 2018.

In the meantime, this serves as an important reminder to not let confusing labels cause you to throw away food that's still safe and usable. (Next up: Check out these eight hacks to make healthy foods last longer.)


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