We’ve all been there — checking the date on carton of eggs, a ketchup bottle, a packet of meat and realizing that date has passed. In the bin it goes. After all, no one wants to eat expired food!

It turns out that those dates aren’t actually expiration dates. Which is great news for you AND your wallet.

Where do dates come from?

Dates on packaged food aren’t exactly required by law. Infant formula is the only food item that the federal government has singled out for this requirement. Yet every food item you pick up has a date on it. Why?

Manufacturers will put dates on food for a few reasons.

The “Sell By” Date

“Sell by” is for the grocery store. This helps the store manage its inventory and keep food in rotation. It is NOT a safety-related date.

The “Best if Used By”  and “Use By” Dates

“Best if Used By” and “Use By” are for you, the eater. This tells you when the food will be at the peak of quality and flavor. Also not a safety-related ate.

How can I be sure it’s safe?

If you’re considering eating something after a “sell by” or “best if used by” date, start with your senses. If it looks, smells and tastes ok, it probably is. Still not sure? You can always Ask the USDA for specific guidance.

Why is it so confusing?

Manufacturers are kind of left to themselves when it comes to putting dates on foods but that may change. The federal government is encouraging the food industry to standardize the use of date labels so that everyone will use “Best If Used By.” That’s one step forward, but it still could make people think that it’s an expiration date. So do your part! When you’re with family and friends and see food about to get tossed because of the date, share what you’ve learned!