Interpreting expiration labels on food, drugs at home

expiration dates.jpg
Food expiration labels can be confusing. Some use "Best by", others use "Use by", and still others "Best by" or "Best before." (WHAM photo)

(WHAM) Lurking on grocery store shelves in print that is sometimes hard to find, and often nearly too small to read, are calendar dates. They’re proceeded with “sell by”, “use by”, “best by” and “guaranteed fresh.”

“Every day, there is someone responsible for checking these dates,” said Jo Natale of Wegmans.

Yet, with the exception of infant formula and baby food, inspectors do not focus on dates. They’re concerned with the storage and handling of food.

“We treat all the dates the same. If it’s the day on the package, we remove it from store shelves,” said Natale.

Yet food experts say consumers who do the same are throwing away their money, along with the food.

A Harvard study finds 90 percent of us throw away food that’s perfectly good. An average family could save $1,500 a year if they knew one little fact.

“The date on the package is really a voluntary date,” said Maggie McHugh, senior nutritionist with Cornell Cooperative Extension.

We asked her to help us crack the code. “Whether they say 'use by' or 'best by' or whatever, they really are all the same meaning,” said McHugh. “It measures the quality of the food, not the safety of the food.”

Manufacturers set the dates, but they’re not required to meet specific criteria and the dates are not regulated. “The best thing you can do when you bring the food home is make sure it’s stored properly, especially if refrigeration is required. After that, you have to use your senses,” said McHugh.

RELATED: What expiration dates on prescription drugs really mean

She pulled a container of orange juice from the fridge that is no longer bright in color and gives it a sniff. It’s obviously past it’s prime.

But often it’s not that obvious. For example, the American Egg Board says raw eggs are good three, sometimes four, weeks after the “sell by” date. One way to test them is to put them in water. If they sink to the bottom, they’re fresh. If they float, they’re not.

The Institute for Food Safety says on the “sell by “ date, a product generally had one-third of its shelf life still ahead. Yet after that date, the quality will diminish more quickly.

Another thing to keep in mind: “Food high in protein goes down more quickly,” said McHugh. Think yogurt, meat and cheese.

The website gives all kinds of tips about shelf life. Cornell recommends a free, downloadable app called “Is My Food Safe.”

Fifty major food manufacturers have agreed to simpler labeling by 2020, to take some of the guesswork away for consumers.

Wegmans, meanwhile, recognizes produce, bakery, diary and some prepared foods have value beyond the expiration date. “We look at it and say, 'Would we feed this to our families?'” said Natale.

When the answer is yes, the food is collected, weighed and donated to food banks. Wegmans donates eight million pounds of perishable food every year.