Many have spoken on the issue of global food waste. Some, including Michael Pollan, have asserted that we actually have enough resources to make enough food to feed everyone – and eating less meat might actually help us to put more food to use for people. A 2012 report by the Stockholm International Institute affirms many of these points.

But what’s another even more practical way to lessen food waste at a micro level? Understanding that the expiration dates on many food items may cause you to needlessly throw away food that may still be good! According to a recent report by The Natural Resources Defense Council and Harvard’s Food Law and Policy Clinic, nine out of 10 people in the United States “needlessly” throw away food.

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On a larger level, this equates to big waste. According to the United Nations Environment Programme, 30 percent of food in the United States is wasted.

According to a report on the study by Treehugger, the first  reason for this is confusion about what the dates mean. “Most consumers think that the dates on the food in their fridge say something about food safety. But most ‘sell by,’ ‘use by,’ and ‘best by’ dates are intended to indicate freshness, and says nothing about when food may spoil,” the report states.

The report affirms, “It creates confusion and leads many consumers to believe, mistakenly, that date labels are signals of a food’s microbial safety.”

Then, there’s inconsistency in regulation of the different dates and terms at the local and state levels. The report recommends standardization of these terms at a larger level.

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“The language used before dates on food products should be clarified and standardized to better inform consumers of the meaning of different dates. The words used should (1) be uniform for a particular meaning across the country and across products; (2) be unambiguous in the information they convey; and (3) clearly delineate between safety-based and quality-based dates,” the report states.

The report also suggests doing away with the “sell by” date, as this should matter only to retailers.

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Until then, the report asks that we understand that the “use by” date is often an estimate rather than a hard and fast rule. Of course, you should check your food for any spoilage or discoloring, but many foods can be eaten a day or two after the label indicates. And for some foods, like meats that could be teeming with bacteria, you’ll want to research further. Use your best judgment, Green Monsters, but know that you might not need to throw food away every time!

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