If you’ve ever experienced food poisoning, you know just how miserable it can be. Every year, 1 in 6 Americans get sick from eating contaminated food, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die.

“Everyone can come down with a case of food poisoning, but there are some groups of people who are more likely to get sick,” said Amy Moosmann, Service Line Director of Food and Nutrition Services at Penn Highlands Healthcare. “This includes people over the age of 65, children younger than 5, pregnant women, and people with health problems.”

Best by, sell by, use by, freeze by—it can be hard to make heads or tails out of the dizzying world of food safety labels and product dates. Since September is National Food Safety Month, we’re taking a close look at what you need to know to keep you and your family healthy and safe.

Are product dates mandatory?

You may be surprised to learn that, except for infant formula, federal law does not require dates to be printed on food packaging. In fact, the date on the packaging is an indicator of when the food is at its best quality, not an indicator of food safety (except for infant formula).

How are product dates determined?

The dates are determined by the manufacturer, not a regulatory body. Manufacturers take into account factors like the length of time and the temperature of the food during distribution, the characteristics of the product and the type of packaging.

What’s the difference between types of dates?

Because product dates are not regulated by a central body, there’s no universal standard for what type of dates to print on food packaging. There are, however, commonly used phrases that you should be familiar with.

  • “Best if used by” indicates when a product will be at its best flavor or quality.
  • “Sell by” tells the store how long to keep the product on the shelf for inventory management purposes.
  • “Use by” indicates the last date recommended for use of the product at peak quality. Except for infant formula, it is not a safety date.
  • “Freeze by” indicates when the product should be frozen to maintain peak quality.

If the date has passed, is it safe to eat?

Unfortunately, there’s no hard and fast rule. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, the quality of perishable foods may deteriorate after the date passes, but they should still be safe if handled correctly. The USDA advises consumers to evaluate the quality of the product before consumption to determine if it shows signs of spoilage, including an odor, flavor or texture that seems off.

Should I toss foods that have passed their date?

Ever since we were little, we’ve been told to not waste food. Yet 30 percent of food is wasted at the retail and consumer level, and people throwing away food that is still good because of confusion about the dates plays a significant role. The USDA advises that foods may be sold, purchased, donated and consumed beyond the “best if used by” date as long as there are no signs of spoilage.

“Remember these four things when dealing with food,” said Amy Moosmann, “Use clean hands and utensils, separate raw food from cooked food and fresh produce; cook food to at least the minimum safe temperature, and chill perishable food within two hours (one hour if it’s above 90 degrees).”

Penn Highlands Healthcare provides nutrition counseling through their diabetes and nutrition education classes to people of all ages. In the nutrition counseling program, nutrition specialists will teach you how to read food labels, understand carbohydrates, and map out meal plans, plus provide you with recipes that are easy, healthy and tasty. For more information, visit www.phhealthcare.org/service/diabetes-and-nutrition-wellness.