Do you really know what the difference is between “sell by,” “best by,” “use by” or any of the other similar labels that are stamped on food products? If you don’t, or if you think you do but might not actually know, you are not alone; it can be flat-out confusing and as a result, there is unnecessary food waste.

I will admit, as I traverse through the aisles of the local grocery store, I will sift through the products to make sure I buy the one with the date furthest out noted on the package, no matter what the words preceding that date say. Even at home, I will not pay much attention to the meaning of a date; as soon as it’s passed, in the trash it goes.

Unfortunately, I’m not the only culprit, as many grocery stores and consumers will start to throw out products that have hit those dates on the package. So ask yourself, if I buy a product and after a few days I see the sell by, or best by, date has passed, should I throw it out? No, you shouldn’t; that date only signifies that the manufacturer has guaranteed the freshness or quality up to that date, but it is still perfectly safe to eat.

The Food Marketing Institute (FMI) and Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) are encouraging the adoption of using only two phrases: “best if used by,” which indicates product quality but still safe to consume, and “use by,” which pertains to highly perishable foods that aren’t safe to eat past that date. I personally don’t think this goes far enough as “best if used by” can still confuse people, which is why I think these products should also have a “use by” date. This way, a consumer will know that for the best quality, they should consume by a certain date, but it is still safe to eat until the “use by” date.

There is no reason to wait until it becomes a mandate to update labels, take the initiative and be a leader in the elimination of food waste. As a consumer, you can make sure you truly understand what the dates mean on the products you are purchasing and don’t automatically throw away something because it has passed the date. I encourage you to comment and tell us what you think about standardizing food labels, and if you think there are better phrases to make standard than those mentioned.