Earlier this month, a supermarket in England made a bold and surprising decision to sell food past their “Best Before” date, marking the first time a a major retailer has chosen to do so. As of earlier this month, a wide variety of foods that exceed the date will be available for purchase at all 125 of Co-op’s stores. This includes canned goods, cereals, rice, and pastas, all of which will be sold at a discount price.

While the decision initially caused a bit of a stir, it’s actually part of a conscious effort to help mitigate England’s food waste epidemic, and one that’s hoping to dispel some of the biggest misconceptions about food labeling. The British government estimates that around £16 billion (about 21 billion in U.S. dollars) worth of produce—equivalent to £700 ($938) for every UK household—is thrown away each year. The United States has an equally egregious track record when it comes to food loss as well. The USDA estimates 30 percent of the food supply is wasted at retail or consumer levels.

So why are we wasting so much food and how is ignoring labels going to stop this?

Shoppers are overwhelmed with so many labels and suggestions that it can be hard to navigate the slew of  “Sell By” dates, “Best Before” dates, and “Use By” dates. It also doesn’t help that  the science and meaning behind all these numbers is surprisingly inexact and nebulous. What do they all mean and and why does food accrue more dates than a month-old Tinder profile anyway?

Most people rely on “Use by” dates as a measure of health and safety. To many they act as the only stop sign between you and that two-day old can of tuna. But it turns out we’ve been interpreting them incorrectly after all.  What if they aren’t meant to warn you against food poisoning in the first place? Brace for a sinking sense of betrayal. Because things are about to get real.

The biggest misconception about “Sell By” is that they indicate food safety. They don’t.

Instead, “sell by” dates indicate peak freshness. The label is just a recommendation manufacturers provide stores letting them know how long they think the item should be on shelves.  However, it doesn’t mean that a product is not safe or even edible after that date.

But what about “Best Before” and “Use By” dates?

These also don’t have anything to do with safety. “Best Before” dates are flavor and quality recommendations for consumers and, similarly, “Use By” dates are indications of the last date that the item is at optimum freshness. In other words, taste, color, and texture may be compromised after the date on the label, but the food in question may still be totally edible.

How are these dates determined anyway?

Manufacturers turn to firms like the National Food Lab for these guidelines, not government agencies. The labs determine the dates by leaving the food out on shelves for days, weeks, and months at a time and then a panel assesses the texture, taste, and freshness of the food of assigning it a numerical value. Ultimately, however, it’s up to the food manufacturers to determine where they draw the line on ideal quality.

All of this amounts to a confusing a way of ensuring brand reputations, and not gauging your chance of getting a stomach ache. And the USDA explicitly states on their website that none of these dates are safety standards. The lone exception is the “Use By” date on infant formula. Probably because babies are precious.

Co-op’s decision to disregard these labels is actually a way to combat these common misperceptions. After all, just because a can of veggies is a day or two doesn’t necessarily mean they’re rotten.

And food safety experts seem to be on board with this approach. In recent years the USDA has tried to encourage greater transparency behind the true meaning of expiration labels. Their website even explicitly states “Foods not exhibiting signs of spoilage should be wholesome and may be sold, purchased, donated and consumed beyond the labeled ‘Best If Used By’ date.”

So how can we tell if our food will make us sick?

In many cases our own senses are better at detecting unsafe food than the dates on the labels. Weird odors and discoloration are usually telltale signs of rotting food. Does your milk smell rancid? Is that mold growing on your bread? Chuck it. When in doubt, always trust visible markers of spoilage over dates or labels. Also, freezers are your best friend and can considerably lengthen the shelf life of your latest grocery haul. All of this is valuable advice to remember as you head to the supermarket with your mind blown.

Header image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Jessica is a former Associate Editor at Chowhound. Follow her on Twitter @volume_knob for updates on snacks and cats.
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