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Reporter shows food labels are confusing for consumers

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Sometimes with food, there can be a vast difference between the "sell by" date and the "use by" date.

When something really goes bad, and how it ties into staggering waste, is often because of consumer misunderstanding.

Americans may be wasting 160 billion pounds of food a year, which is about 40 percent of the food supply.

That means an average family of four spends more than $1,500 a year on food they never eat.

A recent report blames, in large part, a confusing and unregulated labeling system.

What do phrases "sell by," "use by,"  "best before" and "freeze by really mean? It turns out most shoppers don't really know.

Food is actually still good after the "sell by" date and often still safe well after the "use by" date.

For instance, if eggs have a "use by" date of Oct. 16, but eggs are typically good for a few weeks beyond that date.

But that begs the question – if the eggs were still in your refrigerator in November, would you use them?

One of the co-authors of the report, Dana Gunders, gave NBC some shopping tips.  Gunders said shoppers can eat food past its "sell by" date.

But how many days past depends on the product.

Gunders said the "sell by" date is that the "product is going to be at its peak quality by this date. Enjoy by. That's generally how they use these terms. You're not going to get sick on the 22nd [if it said ‘sell by' on the 21st.' Typically, this product will rot and get slimy like lettuce does before it would actually make you sick." 

Refrigeration is key.

The authors of the study want the federal government to regulate food labels. Until then, consumers should use  common sense. If it looks good and smells good, don't toss it.

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