Forty percent of the food produced in the United States ends up in the trash prematurely due to the dates on the packaging, according to a new report from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Harvard Law School’s Food Law and Policy Clinic Read. Forty percent!

I was surprised to find out that the dates on food packaging are not overseen by the FDA (other than baby formula). Those “use by,” “best by” and “sell by” dates began in the 1970’s and are a device created by the food manufacturers. They don’t necessarily mean that the food is no longer safe. Because the dating isn’t regulated, there is no consistency.

Food producers want consumers to eat their product when it’s at its peak, not when it’s less than fresh. Therefore, the dates we see on packaging are more to tell us when the food will be at its best. It is completely safe to eat many foods well past the dates on their packaging.

“Use by” and “best by” are merely a guideline to freshness, not safety, according to the researchers. They say eggs can be eaten 4-5 weeks after their date and still be completely safe. Boxed, processed foods can be eaten up to a year after their date with no ill effects.

“Sell by” is to be used by the stores to help them rotate their stock for peak freshness. In fact, it has been argued that those dates should be hidden from consumers to lessen confusion.

There is a movement to fix this confusing issue, but I think it will be tough to retrain consumers. Think before you toss! Use your eyes and nose and don’t worry so much about that arbitrary date. This slideshow shows six common foods and how long they are safe to eat.