The FDA knows expiration dates are confusing, so they’re changing them

Who among us really knows what “best if sold by” means?

You can get extraordinarily sick eating expired food, but more often than not we’re just throwing away perfectly good chow. All told, the FDA estimates we waste 133 billion pounds of it a year. It’s true that a lot of food waste is out of consumers’ hands—products can go bad en route to or inside of grocery stores, or fail to meet standards for sale—but home cooks are far from blameless. The FDA believes expiration dates may lead to most of this unnecessary trashing.

Right now, manufacturers use a variety of terms, most of which you’ve probably seen: “use before,” “sell by,” “expires on,” and others. You might have wondered how a food company knows when their product is going to go bad. Here, at last, is the answer: they don’t. Not really. As the FDA notes, there’s no precise science behind creating a sell-by date. Manufacturers are estimating, and it’s not always clear whether they’re doing so based on safety concerns or just on quality. So, not only is phrasing inconsistent from product to product, but definitions aren’t consistent from phrase to phrase. One company may put an “expires on” date on a can of soda that merely poses a higher risk of being flat by that time, while another might use the same wording on a piece of meat that is quite genuinely going to go rotten—but probably not until after that date, which is a cautious and conservative estimate. They’re so ambiguous as to be pretty much useless, and consumers tend to err on the side of throwing things away.

So the FDA is proposing a change: everyone should switch to “best if used by.” Saying that a product should be sold by a certain date is ambiguous—does that mean it’s unsafe to eat after that point, or is there some added window of time built in for you to take it home and use it? Or is the manufacturer instead focused on how long the product will maintain its optimal quality? And why do some foods appear fine even days after their supposed expiry date?

Using the phrase “best if used by” clearly indicates that this is an issue of quality, not safety.

The FDA isn’t actually mandating this label—no label usage is required right now, either—they’re simply supporting an industry shift toward this alternative phrasing for the sake of clarity And if manufacturers follow along, it will give consumers a lot more autonomy in deciding when food has actually gone bad.

This may sound like bad news if you’re a person that has to Google whether raw chicken is still safe to eat after five days (it really, really isn’t). But these new labels could actually help you save food. You just have to learn a little more about food safety.

Chicken and fish, for instance, grow harmful bacteria incredibly quickly, so these meats can’t stay in the fridge for more than a day or two before they start to go off. Beef is heartier, though ground meat of any kind is likely to spoil more quickly (because it has more surface area for bacteria to call home). Most meat also has a convenient tell for when it’s spoiled: it smells bad.

Your nose is your first tool in determining when something is rotten. Bacteria often produces odorous chemicals as they break down food, so spoiled meat or dairy will have a distinctive scent. Trust your nose. Sometimes poor handling at the grocery store will mean a product has gone bad before it even reaches your house, and your nose will tell you before the sell by date can.

The other tool is your eyes, namely to look for signs of mold. Fresh produce and dairy products will grow mold, which you shouldn’t consume. That being said, many of these products could have a bit of fuzz on them and still be safe to eat so long as you remove the spoiled bits. Cheese and yogurt are essentially the result of the controlled-spoiling of milk using specific bacteria and molds, so a little extra growth isn’t necessarily dangerous.

When in doubt, you can also check the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services’ Food Keeper App, which lets you search for a specific food and provides info on how long that item is good for in the fridge or freezer. But it’s also important to remember that a website cannot tell you if your piece of steak has gone bad. We waste $161 billion in food each year—we might lose a lot less if we trusted our noses more.

Sara Chodosh

Sara Chodoshis an associate editor at PopSci where she writes about everything from vaccine hesitancy to extreme animal sex. She got her master's degree in science journalism at NYU's Science Health and Environmental Reporting Program, and is getting a second master's in data visualization from the University of Girona. Contact the author here.