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A customer scans the expiration date on gallons of milk sitting on a cooler shelf at a Safeway grocery store in Washington, DC.

View and download a helpful infographic that details expiration dates for popular items in your fridge. View the infographic

David Brancaccio: The other day we were cleaning out the fridge here in the Marketplace New York bureau: once a decade whether it needs it or not.  During the hazmat procedure, it was duly noted that the oldest legible sell by date found was September 2009.

Marketplace's Adrienne Hill is working on a story about food safety for our weekend show, Marketplace Money. Why not ask her how carefully these sell-by dates are regulated? Adrienne, good morning.

Adriene Hill: Good morning David.

Brancaccio: So, help me understand expiration dates -- it’s clear. If it says a certain date and it’s past it, don’t eat it.

Hill: Not quite. Unfortunately, it’s really complicated. The thing to know is the federal government only requires expiration dates. The only food date it requires on infant formula. So the rest of the dates you see, use by, sell by, best by, eat by, all of those things -- they’re regulated at the state level and they’re often established by the food companies.

Brancaccio: Alright -- do any of those, that long list, do they mean anything?

Hill: Well it kind of depends on the date.

Here’s Christine Bruhn. She’s a food science professor at UC Davis.

Christine Bruhn: It varies, depending upon the food product. Sometimes it tells you when the grocery store should be selling the product. Sometimes it tells you the quality of the product and when you should be using.

Hill: So a lot of this is just about common sense about what to eat and what to toss.

Brancaccio: So how do you decide? Eat it and maybe preserve some food or spend the money and start all over?

Hill: Well it kind of depends on the food. There’s some food, like eggs which I always wonder about, that are good after the sell by date that you see on the package. And the USDA says you can actually eat them three to five weeks after you buy them, even if that sell by date has passed. 

Brancaccio: If you crack them open and a chicken comes out, it’s too late.

Hill: It’s too late -- do not eat that! And with dairy, which is something else I wonder about, here’s Bruhn again:

Bruhn: If it’s something like dairy products, milk and yogurt, these have been pasteurized. They can safely be consumed beyond that sell by date.

Brancaccio: I mean Adriene, many of us just use the nose test, right.

Hill: Yeah, you know this is actually how I eat too, I sniff around, I look around. And I talked to some food scientists and they told me there are bacteria that are dangerous out there that actually can grow in your foods and you can’t smell them.

Brancaccio: Alright so any reporting this story, did you glean any secret tips for wasting less food and maybe less money?

Hill: The best piece of advice -- just buy less and there’ll be less to spoil.

Brancaccio: Alright. Marketplace’s Adriene Hill, thank you very much.

Hill: Thanks.

About the author

Adriene Hill is the senior multimedia reporter for LearningCurve.

View and download a helpful infographic that details expiration dates for popular items in your fridge. View the infographic

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