NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) - Buying groceries can eat a chunk of your budget, and smart consumers look to get the most for their bucks. But despite that, Americans are wasting billions of pounds of food a year.
And confusion over when food is no longer fit for consumption may be fueling the food waste crisis.
"Gonna' go spend money on groceries, I don't want to lose out," said Angie Geer, a shopper in a local grocery store who looks for good quality in foods she buys.
Shoppers become investigators while traversing grocery store aisles. One shopper said without fail she checks dates on everything.
"Sure. I have to," said Ruth Grayson. "I don't want to buy expired food, it's a food safety thing with me."
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in March of 2015, the average weekly cost of food for a family of four with toddlers or children 4 to 5 years old was $130.10 for a thrifty food plan and $ 254.50 for a liberal food plan.
For a family of four with children between 6 and 8 or 9 to 11 years old, the thrifty food plan cost $149.50 a week and $297.20 for the liberal plan.
Still, food is being thrown in the garbage at high rates.
"It's estimated that 36 pounds of food is thrown out every month," said Leigh Anne Burns, MS, LDN/RD with LSU Health.
And the 36 pounds of food reference refers to a single person, according to the USDA. It says food waste is the single largest type of waste in landfills.
And expiration dates seem to be at the root of much of the waste.
"If it's too close to that three days, I don't get it," said Grayson as she looked at fresh meats.
Harvard's Law School Food Law and Policy Clinics and the Natural Resources Defense Council and others studied food date labeling and food waste in the U.S.
"They said that 90 percent of Americans will discard food prematurely simply because of the misunderstanding about the dates that are on the products, and 40 percent of the entire food supply is destroyed simply because of the date," said Tenney Sibley, director of Sanitarian Services for the State of Louisiana. It is an agency within the Department of Health and Hospitals.
Consumers can hardly purchase food without seeing "sell-by," "best-by" and "use-by" dates.
"The 'sell-by' is usually a date that's used so the grocery stores know that they need to get it off their shelf," said Burns.
When asked about the best-by dates, Burns said, "That's a quality issue. That means that the food is going to best if eaten or consumed by that date, but it doesn't necessarily mean that it's bad. Sometimes foods are good a month past, or maybe even further past the sell-by, or the best-by date."
And use-by is the last date recommended for the use of a product while it is at its peak quality.
"Use-by is a little bit more concerning for someone that might have an auto-immune disease," said Burns.
To be sure, government takes the safety of foods seriously. Food-borne illnesses can kill,
In 2014, the state health department conducted 86, 845 inspections statewide of restaurants, grocery stores, meat and seafood markets, bakeries and other establishments providing food to the public.
"The critical violations are those that present an imminent health risk if left unchecked or uncorrected. It is very likely that that violation could cause a food-borne illness - foods that are not held at the proper temperatures, whether it be cold or hot, would be a critical violation," said Tenney Sibley, director of Sanitarian Services for the state.
In Orleans Parish, there were 12, 578 inspections that netted 9,273 critical violations and 37,323 non-critical violations.
In Jefferson Parish, the state conducted 9,320 inspections that produced 7,302 critical violations and 30,312 non-critical violations.
"Orleans Parish and Jefferson Parish are running right about the state average of a little less than 20 percent of their violations noted are critical violations, and that's really to be expected," stated Sibley.
She said inspectors look for several things during grocery store inspections.
"We're going to always check the baby formulas and the baby foods, that's extremely important, that's always going to be done," Sibley stated.
That is in line with federal requirements.
"The only products that are required by federal law are baby food formulas and baby food products, and it's so important that they generally stamp it into the metal of the container. And you say, well, why is it only baby formulas and baby food? And that's because of the nutrient value," Sibley stated.
But what about all those dates on foods that non-infants eat? Sibley said actually the dates that appear on them are not required.
"If you go to your meat case, your chicken case, you know it's wrapped and it has a date on it, that is not required - absolutely not required," she said.
Dates on meats, dairy products and other foods do serve a purpose and can be useful for recalls.
"Those dates are strictly for the manufacturers, they are for the stores themselves and somewhat a courtesy to the consumer. But it does not in any way reflect the safety of the food product in those containers," said Sibley.
Still, the government mandates that food sold in the U.S. be wholesome and fit for eating and the agriculture department works to make sure that is the case.
State inspectors also scan store shelves for canned goods with telltale warning signs. But not all dented cans are problematic.
"These dents are not on a seam of the can. If it is dented on the seam, the possibility - and don't say the probability - it's just possible that it may allow air into the can," Sibley said.
Cans that have puffy tops or bottoms, or other bulges should not be purchased.
"Two reasons: One, it's more than likely contaminated with botulism, which is what happens when the seams are compromised and air is let into the can; and two, if you pick it up it could very likely burst," said Sibley.
Boxed items get inspected for tears and slit that actually leave food exposed. Bottom line dates on foods have more to do with quality, experts said.
"And certainly any producer of a food product wants their consumers to eat it when it's at its prime, because if you don't care for it, or it tastes a little off, then you may never purchase that product again," said Sibley.
And our senses can speak volumes when trying to determine if a food product has really expired.
"You crack a bad egg, you know it right off," said Sibley.
But sometimes making such a determination is not as easy. So the USDA has a new tool designed to remove guesswork out of what to toss and what to eat. It's the food keeper app.
"And it will then give you the ranges of how long you can use it in your refrigerator and the storage dates," said Burns.
So what about all the people who have spent years obsessing about food expiration dates?
Sibley said,"I would say surprise, use your nose, use your common sense and if you have any doubt, then don't purchase it."
Experts interviewed for this story said the biggest problems tend to be the result of how food products are handled between the time they are purchased and stored at home.
"If it's hot in your car, try to remember to take that freezer bag, or take an ice chest to keep those foods cool until you get them to the house," said Burns.
All foods can go bad at some time or another.
"I think that your nose is going to let you know that it's scary," said Burns.
But the government says too much of it is ending up in America's landfills before reaching the spoilage point. As a result, the USDA and EPA launched a food waste challenge which aims to shift thinking about food and food waste.