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But there’s rarely reason to fret if your food is past date, says Emily Broad Leib, director of the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic.

“There are a small handful of foods that shouldn’t be sitting in your refrigerator for such a long time—there is a safety risk.

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“It’s more of a sensory defect that we don’t like, but you’re not going to get sick on it,” says Randy Worobo, professor of food science at Cornell University.

Sixteen states prescribe by law the date on milk cartons, and some go a step further, regulating what happens to milk after that date.

“If those lettuce leaves had no have to arrive from someplace—they don’t arrive from nothing.

And the bacteria that turn that salad into a slimy disgusting mess, those bacteria don’t make us sick.

For other foods—the vast majority—date labels are simply the manufacturer’s suggestion about when a product might taste freshest.

“While shelf-life dating might be important for those products, it’s probably—and that’s a big asterisk there—not that important for food safety.

The dates printed on milk cartons are probably the six most misunderstood numbers in grocery stores.

First, let’s clear one thing up: It’s not an expiration date.

Clarifying food date labels is the most cost effective way to combat food waste in the United States.

In the world of food, the difference between “best by” and “expires on” is significant. Best before dates are about taste, texture and appearance, he says.

“Microorganisms are no different than us—we need water, we need food, and we need the proper temperature to survive,” Worobo says.