Confused by expiration or “best before” dates on food? More than 10 different date labels are currently used on food products, which makes it difficult to know if a food is safe to eat.

Those unclear labels are getting a makeover as grocery manufacturers and retailers have joined together to simplify the process. They are introducing standard phrases that will state either “best if used by” or “use by.” Here’s what you need to know about the new labels.

  1. The program is voluntary. The Grocery Manufacturers Association and Food Marketing Institute are the two major trade associations for food retailers and manufacturing and are coordinating the effort. They expect food companies to begin phasing in the new labels soon, with the goal of widespread adoption by the summer of 2018. “We want to encourage a consistent vocabulary so that our customers understand they are purchasing products that are of the highest quality and safety possible,” said Leslie Sarasin, president and CEO of the Food Marketing Institute.
  2. Food dates are not regulated by the federal government. While the Food and Drug Administration does regulate food labels for nutrition and ingredients, there are no federal requirements for dating products. The only exception to this is infant formula. Food manufacturers provide date information to help consumers and retailers decide when food is of the best quality, but the dates do not necessarily indicate the safety of food.
  3. “Best If Used By” will appear on most food. This phrase helps consumers to understand that the product may not taste as expected after this date, but is still safe to use or consume. It is not an expiration date.
  4. “Use By” will appear on highly perishable foods. This phrase will be used only on products where food safety will be a concern at a certain point. When you see a product with this label, it should be discarded after that date.
  5. The new labels will reduce food waste. Confusing date labels cause many consumers to throw out food unnecessarily. About a third of Americans always discard food close to or past the date on the label and 84 percent do so occasionally, a study by the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic and the National Resources Defense Council found. “Clarifying and standardizing date label language is one of the most cost-effective ways that we can reduce the 40 percent of food that goes to waste each year in the United States,” said Emily Broad Leib, director of the policy clinic.

The new date labels will make it easier to understand the safety and quality of food. It will also mean less food is wasted and that is a welcome change.