MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Every year, Americans waste about 40 percent of the food we grow and make. Experts say part of that reason could be people don’t understand the dates printed on the packaging of the foods.

So, Steve from Long Prairie asks: What do those labels mean? Good Question.

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If you squint at the small print on the food at the grocery store, it’s almost labeled with a food product date. It might say “Best By” (or “Best if Used By” or “Best Before”), “Use By” or “Sell By.”

According to Rachel Perron, Culinary and Branding Director at Kowalski’s Markets, what each of those terms means depends on what kind of food a customer is looking at.

“Best By” generally refers to non-perishable items, like cereals or crackers. “Use By” is primarily for perishable items, like dairy or meats. “Sell By” is a label that is generally put on by the store to tell the retailer when to take the item off the shelf.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture does not require food to be dated, except for infant formula. Minnesota does have some laws for date marking, but most manufacturers post a date on their own.

According to the USDA “Best By” indicates when a product will be of the best flavor and quality. It’s not an indication of the safety of the foods. In fact, many food shelves take donations of food past their “Best By” dates from commercial businesses or farmers.

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Food shelves like Second Harvest Heartland have criteria listed for what they’ll accept. You can find SHH’s here.

“You can usually keep it for quite some time,” says Perron. “It’s usually a measure of quality more than anything else.”

The “Use By” label is the last date where the product is considered peak quality. The USDA says that’s a not a safety date, but Perron warns given the perishability of most of these items, deciding whether or not to use it after that date can be more tricky.

“You have to use your best judgment. It really depends on what you’re looking at,” she says. “Raw chicken or fish would have less time than cooked meatloaf.”

Finally, the “Sell By” date is for inventory management by a store.

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“It’s mostly for us to be able to know when to take the product off our shelves,” says Perron. “We set that date so you can have a reasonable length of time to enjoy it at home.”

Heather Brown