Stop throwing away food that's past the 'sell by' date – it's probably still safe to eat

Those dates written on food products are confusing.

Federal officials are hoping changes to food labels will get people to stop wasting so much food.

It's estimated that 30 percent of the food supply is wasted by food sellers and consumers – and one of the main reasons for that is the confusing dates written on food products, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) said this week.

Federal regulations actually don't require that food is dated (except for infant formula), but many food makers still put dates on their food to describe quality. They use a variety of phrases like "sell by" and "use by," which can be misleading to consumers and cause people to throw out food that's past its date – even though the food is still safe to eat, the USDA explains.

That's why the FSIS issued new guidance on how to label products, urging food makers and retailers to date foods with the phrase "best if used by." The agency says it's easier for people to understand that the date means quality of the food – not whether it's safe to eat.

“In an effort to reduce food loss and waste, these changes will give consumers clear and consistent information when it comes to date labeling on the food they buy,” Al Almanza, USDA Deputy Under Secretary for Food Safety, said in a statement. “This new guidance can help consumers save money and curb the amount of wholesome food going in the trash.”

As long as a food isn't showing signs it has spoiled, it's probably still OK to eat (or sell in a store) – even if it's past its "best if used by" date, the USDA says. (For information on how to tell, check out the USDA's guidelines here or download the agency's FoodKeeper app.)

The USDA's guidance on date labels for food is open for people to comment on for the next 60 days. You can comment online here, using the docket number FSIS-2016-0044.

Reducing food waste

An estimated 133 billion pounds of food (valued at about $161 billion) goes uneaten in people's homes, food stores and restaurants in the United States every year, the USDA said.

And changing how food is labeled is just one of the latest efforts by the USDA to help reduce how much food is wasted every year. The agency has worked to change regulations to allow food manufacturers to donate food more easily, as well as create a platform for businesses and organizations to share best practices for reducing, recovering and recycling food.

By 2030, the USDA has a goal of reducing the amount of wasted food in landfills by 50 percent.

Reducing how much food is wasted ever year can really help you save money. It also is better for the environment, with the Environmental Protection Agency saying it reduces methane emissions from landfills, lowers your carbon footprint, and conserves energy and resources, among other things.

For tips on how to reduce food waste in your home, click here.

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