Let your nose do the work, not your eyes. That's the general idea when it comes to deciding whether food is safe to eat.
But what about those ‘expiration' dates that are so prominently printed on our food?
"It not an expiration date, it's a use-by date," said Jill Roberts, a food science researcher at the University of South Florida. "They're quality labels."
The language is varied…
…but the implication is the same. Roberts, proudly a self-proclaimed ‘food cop,' says we can largely ignore the dates.
"Those things are not regulated, and they are basically meaningless," Roberts said.
Roberts said there are close to 125,000 hospitalizations each year due to food borne illnesses. However, she said the dates stamped on our food have little or nothing to do with preventing those outbreaks.
"Most of this labeling has been driven by taste," she said. "It has nothing to do with safety."
The Food and Drug Administration and the United States Department of Agriculture require an "expiration" date on exactly one product: infant formula.
As for everything else, here's how the FDA puts it: "This information is entirely at the discretion of the manufacturer."
No universal standard
The USDA says 20 states have individual rules regarding select products, such as milk. But there is no federal standard. And there's no guarantee the date is based on science.
"There is no uniform or universally accepted system used for food dating in the United States," the USDA said.
Roberts estimates 40% of the country's food goes to waste—much of it unnecessarily when consumers strictly adhere to the date on a package. Other researchers agree with her conclusion.
A Natural Resources Defense Council study, conducted in conjunction with Harvard University, put a price tag on the question. The research, titled "The Dating Game," estimated a food-date-conscious family wastes as much a $2,200 worth of food each year.
But they don't have to.
Roberts says use your nose. And your tongue.
"When you look at a box of cereal and it's past it's use by date, who cares," she said. "If you haven't opened that product it's good for another couple of years."
In fact, the FDA allows grocery stores to sell food past the date on the box.
LINK: FDA on expiration dates
"Is it safe to eat? Sure. But it's not going to taste good," she said.
And that's the consequence of not having a uniform standard based on science: Food safety is left up to us.
Roberts says the dating system must improve. She recommends a model similar to the "Nutrition Facts" placed on food.
"It's in the same place, in the same format on every box," she said.
Until regulators adopt a universal system, Roberts says consumers will be left to guess whether the numbers actually correlate to protecting their health.
"We don't know what that date means," she warned.