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Hooray! Sell-by dates on food packages are going to get much less confusing

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It’s all about standardizing the labels

Milk Prices Rise 7.5 Percent To Highest Price In 2.5 Years Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Admit it, you’ve done it: you’ve checked the “sell by” date on your milk, noticed it had passed, and then drank the milk anyway. It’s okay! A lot of people are confused by what exactly the “sell by” dates on food packages mean. The grocery industry wants to make life easier for you, and every other American consumer — so they’re standardizing the labels.

The two largest trade groups for grocery manufacturers and retailers announced today that manufacturers will now be encouraged to use only two expiration date labels on food packages: “use by” and “best if used by.” That’s meant to replace the current system, which includes more than 10 different labels — from “sell by” to “use by,” “expires on,” and “best before.” No wonder you never know how long exactly that opened milk carton should sit in your fridge before it goes bad.

“Use by” means that a perishable food should not be consumed after the date printed on the packaging. “Best if used by” means that a food may not taste or look as it should at its peak quality, but is still safe to consume.

The Department of Agriculture and environmental groups have pushing for standardizing expiration labels, according to The Washington Post. That’s because fine food that’s thrown away ends up going to landfills and emitting greenhouse gasses that contribute to climate change. Misunderstanding expiration dates and trashing good food is also bad for your wallet.

“Eliminating confusion for consumers by using common product date wording is a win-win because it means more products will be used instead of thrown away in error,” said Jack Jeffers, vice president of quality at Dean Foods, which led Grocery Manufacturers Association’s work on this issue, said in a statement. “It’s much better that these products stay in the kitchen — and out of landfills.”

The new labels are voluntary, but the trade groups encourage widespread adoption by the summer of 2018. As for that expired milk: just smell it before you drink it. Your nose might be more reliable than the expiration date.