Confusing 'sell by' dates contributing to high food waste

Food takes a big bite out of most family budgets, but it's estimated that Americans throw away 20%-30% of all the groceries they buy.

Oftentimes, tossed food is still perfectly good.

One of the reasons shoppers discard good food is because they're confused about the dates that are printed on the packaging.

Sometimes those codes indicate food should be sold before a certain date, while other times it says it should be used by that date or that it's best within that time frame.

Shoppers outside a Westwood store told Boston 25 News that they always look at the dates before making a purchase.

Marise Hastie, a professor of exercise and nutrition at Lasell College in Newton, isn't surprised people can get confused by these dates. "It's been unclear whether these are actually intended to determine food quality or food safety, and in fact, they are indicative of food quality, not food safety, and other than infant's formula, the federal government doesn't require any consistency in how the food is labeled."

This is what one of those shoppers told us: "I just bought fresh cheese because the date on the cheese was no good, and the cheese looked fine, to be honest with you."

The Food and Drug Administration is now trying to get the grocery industry to adopt uniform language: "Best if used by."

"By that day," explained Hastie, "you are consuming the food at what is considered to be its peak quality, and this is considering you've stored it correctly."

Doug Rauch, founder of Daily Table in Dorchester, hates to see good food go to waste. He gets products from manufacturers that are closer to expiring than those sold at traditional grocery stores and sells them at a deep discount.

Rauch founded the non-profit after spending years as the president of Trader Joe's.

He says it is time to adopt a system everyone understands. "We've got perfectly good food, wholesome healthy food, that has a large carbon footprint on it, that's about to be pulled off shelves and many times head off to a landfill, all because of this silly thing around a sell-by or best by day."

By one estimate, Americans throw away about $160 billion worth of food each year. Hastie says following a few simple steps could help reduce that number: "The smell-test works. Look at the texture. You want to make sure there's no bacteria growing or any other alterations in the food quality itself. If it looks good, it probably still is in most cases."

The federal government is hoping to cut food waste in half by the year 2030.

>> 'Sell By' or what? US pushes for clarity on expiration dates