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New Guidelines Seek To Provide Clarity On Food Expiration Dates

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Now, we're going to talk about something else that everyone interprets differently - food expiration dates.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

There are currently more than a dozen different types of date label appearing on grocery store shelves. Take, for example, best by, best before, best if used by, better if used before, better if used by, best when used by, enjoy by, fresh until, display until, sell by, use by, use or freeze by, expires on, or worst of all, an ominous date stamp with no explanation at all.

MCEVERS: And none of those labels is going to answer the question that's really on your mind - can I still eat this yogurt? Here's how NPR food reporter Dan Charles explains it.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: The labels are the company's way of protecting the reputation of that food. It has very little to do with food safety. The companies put those dates on in order to, you know, guarantee that the consumer gets that food in the best shape possible.

MCEVERS: In other words, most food is perfectly fine to eat well past its sell by or fresh until date.

SIEGEL: To eliminate some of the confusion, two big food industry groups - the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Food Marketing Institute - have decided to slim down that list of labels to two.

CHARLES: One that says best if used by, and they say that should go on most food. And then if a company thinks that, you know, this food really could become a safety hazard if it sat on the shelf too long, they can use the label use by with a date.

SIEGEL: So best if used by or use by, that's it.

MCEVERS: Now, these are guidelines. They're not enforced rules. The hope is that food companies will adopt the simplified labels by summer 2018, and that consumers will be less likely to throw out food that's still good. Environmental advocacy groups say it could help cut down on the tens of millions of tons of food that are wasted in the U.S. each year.

SIEGEL: In the meantime, if you're still trying to decide about that yogurt, here's what NPR's Dan Charles says.

CHARLES: There's a simple test - just open the package and smell it, or look at it. That's as good a guide as any.

SIEGEL: And your nose doesn't expire until you do.

(SOUNDBITE OF IKEBE SHAKEDOWN SONG, "OFFERING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.