You’re shopping. You just want to get in and out. You’re looking at the chicken. But all you see are a bunch of cellophane wrappers informing the grocer that they have to “sell by” a certain date. And that date is today.

DATE LABEL, SHMATE SHMABELWhat do you do? You want your fajitas. But what about that date? What does it mean? Well, it turns out that much of the time, it means nothing:

Sell-by, use-by and best-by dates do not indicate whether a food is safe to eat, or even if is still tasty. Sell-by dates provide information to retailers about how long to display a product. Best-if-used-by typically indicates a date after which the food will no longer be at its highest quality — as defined by the manufacturer. But the meaning of those terms varies from product to product, and even among manufacturers of the same products, because there is no industry agreement on definitions and on which labels should be applied to which foods.

But if you’re like me, sometimes you don’t catch the date until you’re getting dinner ready. That’s when you find out the “sell by” date was a couple days ago. Then you might do what most people do. You toss it:  

Fifty-four percent of consumers say eating food past its sell-by or use-by date is a health risk, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture report. A 2011 survey conducted by the Food Marketers Institute found that 91 percent of consumers occasionally discarded food past its sell-by date out of concern for the product’s safety; 25 percent said they always did so. Food waste has reached record levels. In the United States, an estimated 40 percent of food is thrown away.  

I’ve never liked “sell by” labels. The grocer seems to be saying: Who cares about you? We just want to get this stuff off our hands. Then it’s yourproblem.

This article made me feel a little better, because it confirmed my suspicion that date labels are just a guide, and a rough one at that. From now on, I’m going to use the philosophy I used in college, which is that as long as something is not stinky or groddy, it’s okay to eat it. That philosophy got me to where I am today, which is alive.