You open the fridge, drag out the cottage cheese, check for fur, and if there isn’t any, you say, “Honey? Will you sniff this?”
This is not, however, the approved method of checking for freshness. The approved way lies in a voluntary system of labeling.
The only items required by federal law to be labeled for expiration are infant formula and some baby foods, although some states also mandate pulling dairy from store shelves on the expiration date.
Food dating emerged in the 1970s, prompted by consumer demand as Americans produced less of their own food but still demanded information about how it was made. The dates solely indicate freshness and are used by manufacturers to convey when the product is at its peak.
That means the food does not expire in the sense of becoming inedible. For un-refrigerated foods, there may be no difference in taste or quality, and expired foods won’t necessarily make people sick.
Why does this matter? Americans are prematurely throwing out food.
That is largely because of confusion over what expiration dates actually mean. More than 90 percent of Americans throw out food prematurely, and 40 percent of the U.S. food supply is tossed – unused – every year because of food dating.
The actual term “expiration date” refers to the last date a food should be eaten or used. The only label, in fact, that has anything to do with food safety is the “expiration” date, which should typically be adhered to. However, it is not a magic date where at the stroke of midnight your dairy products go sour.
The “sell by” date tells the store how long to display the product for sale.
This is basically a guide for the retailer, so the store knows when to pull the item. The issue is quality of the item (freshness, taste and consistency) rather than whether it is on the verge of spoiling. Food lasting past the “sell by” date shouldn’t be tossed just because it’s a few days past the time frame it should have been sold.
“Best if used by (or before)” dates refer strictly to quality, not safety. This date is recommended for best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date. Sour cream, for instance, is already sour, but is fresher  tasting before the “best if used by” date.
The “guaranteed fresh” date usually refers to bakery items. They will still be edible after the date, but will not be at peak freshness.
 The “use by” date, meanwhile, is the last day for “peak quality,” meaning the food’s taste and quality may decline afterwards, but it doesn’t necessarily mean one will get sick if they eat it.
Although legislation has been introduced numerous times to help consumers with a more standardized food labeling system, nothing has become law at this time.
What follows is a list to help consumers be a little less confused about some of the food they may have at home.
• Milk – Usually fine until a week after the “sell by” date.
• Eggs – OK for three to five weeks after you bring them home. Double-grade A eggs will go down a grade in a week but still are edible.
• Poultry and seafood – Cook or freeze within a day or two.
• Beef and pork – Cook or freeze within three to five days.
• Canned goods – Highly acidic foods like tomato sauce can keep 18 months or more. Low-acid foods like canned green beans are probably risk-free for up to five years.
Obviously, be safe with any product. One doesn’t need an expiration date to tell them that the milk smells bad, the bread is growing mold, or the cottage cheese is growing fur.
A smart consumer should:
• Purchase the product before the date expires. If perishable, take the food home immediately after purchase and refrigerate it promptly. Freeze it if you can’t use it within times recommended. Once a perishable product is frozen, it doesn’t matter if the date expires because foods kept frozen continuously are safe.
• Follow handling recommendations on products. Food waste in a country where there is poverty will eventually be the driving force behind any legislation that is passed.
Consumers, simply need to be practical in shopping and usage. Go through cupboards and see what may be getting old and make a meal with it or donate it to the local food shelf.
Don’t always “over buy.”
Be smart, shop well, and watch for new labeling systems to come.