'GMA' Investigates: What Does 'Sell By' Date Really Mean?

Consumer Reports senior scientist, Dr. Michael Hansen, says "sell by" is not an expiration date.
3:00 | 10/01/14

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Transcript for 'GMA' Investigates: What Does 'Sell By' Date Really Mean?
investigation. Food labels, or the sell by dates. You may be surprised to learn you may be throwing away thousands of dollars food that may be okay to eat. Good morning, Mara. Reporter: Good morning. Dates on packaged food are confusing. We believe it's an expiration date. It's estimated 90% of consumers throw away food because of this confusion. Throwing away groceries and money. Best by, use by, enjoy by, sell by. We've all seen the labels with dates, but what do they actually mean? They don't mean anything. Reporter: Dr. Michael Hansen, a senior scientist with consumer reports said consumers mistakenly believe these are expiration dates. What most people think it means is the food is bad after that date. It could be hazardous. They tend to throw it out. Reporter: But "Gma" investigators learning this is not the last day it's safe to eat. But it's the last day the product is at its peak quality. The guidelines vary from state to at a time. Some states have no guidelines at all. This is required to be labeled. Reporter: The only product with a federally regulated date, infant formula. Even the food industry recognizes that current practices do not adequately serve all consumers. And tells us there's an effort to improve current code dating practices with the goal of creating a uniform global standard. Use by, sell by. And nothing. But just a date. And this is all the same brand. This is all the same brand. This is not only the same brand, but also the same 2%. Reporter: So what does this show us? This shows there's complete confusion out there. Reporter: Organic valley says their milk comes from various suppliers who use different things. But they believe these confusing terms lead to major waste and major money out of your pocket. One author says a family of four throws out up to $2300 a year on food. How much is label confusion is not known, but experts are sure it's part of the problem. The food is still safe after that date. Milk, up to one week. Eggs within three to five weeks from your purchase date. And certain canned goods, like soup and green beans can be good on the shelf for up to five years unopened. As a consumer, what are you supposed to do? How do you know your food has gone bad? Common sense. The food will smell or taste bad before it gets to the point to make you sick. Reporter: Common sense advice that never expires. Experts say that sell by date shouldn't be visible to consumers because that information is really so the store knows when to move in new invento inventory. Dr. Hansen says the most important thing about keeping food fresh is keeping it cold until you're ready to use it. My mom said, do the sniff test. I'm the one who's going to the back of the thing to try to get the -- The latest expiration date. Going back of the case. Yeah. Every time. I want to see those labels, though. More time. But the bottom line is you may be throwing away food that's fine.

This transcript has been automatically generated and may not be 100% accurate.

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