After hearing a story about a Grandma in Italy that accidentally poisoned her family by making them expired hot cocoa, I started thinking about what is safe and what isn't safe when dealing with expiration dates on food.

Not only are those 'sell-by,' 'use-by' and other food safety dates almost useless in determining the safety of food, they can also be confusing and lead to billions of dollars in wasted food each year.

According to the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), consumers in the United States are guilty of throwing away about $165 billion dollars a year in unused food because the expiration date signifies that it could be bad. The average four-person American household will waste about $2,275 each year by throwing out food that is still good, despite what the date on the label says. It equals out to roughly 9 out of 10 people throw away food based on dates on the labels.

What many consumers aren't aware of, the NRDC says that there isn't a uniform method for dating food for expiration. Dates on labels are usually determined by the food manufacturer or producer so retailers will know how long they can display the food or when they think the food is approaching the peak quality.

To help consumers and make it easier, the U.S. Department of Agriculture says that a 'sell-by' date tells stores how long to display food and is the date by which consumers should buy it. A 'best if used by (or before)' date signifies most desirable flavor and quality of the product. And a 'use-by' date is the last date recommended for the use of the product at its peak quality.

Many consumers also face confusion in the dairy department. More than twenty states require a food dating system on items like milk, and that food dating system can also vary from state to state.

Advocates from the NRDC all admit that a uniform system, possibly set up the United States government, should be in place to stop the confusion that consumers face when shopping for their next meal. But until something like that is in place, maybe using simple logic is the best. In other words, if your food has a funny color or smells bad, don't eat it!

Oh, and it should be noted that the hot cocoa used by the Italian grandma had an expiration date of 25 years ago, so if you are still storing some hot cocoa packets from last winter, you should be fine.


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