Food poisoning and foodborne pathogens like listeria, salmonella and E. coli are real risks but knowing how long to keep and when to throw away food can be tricky. In fact, The Natural Resources Defense Council says more than 90 percent of Americans may be throwing out food unnecessarily because food label dates are confusing.

Plus, some people just wait too long to throw away refrigerated food. A recent survey by public health and safety organization NSF International showed that 47 percent of people discard food when they see mold or changes in color or texture.

For starters, it’s important to understand what the dates on the food labels really mean.

Expiration: These are safety dates that are usually found on fresh foods like deli meats or even dry goods like infant formula.

“If you use food past that date, there is a risk for foodborne illness,” said Cheryl Luptowski, home safety expert at NSF International.

Best if used by: These dates indicate when a food’s quality or freshness may start to deteriorate.

“The product may not taste as good as it did earlier but it’s not necessarily going to be unsafe,” Luptowski said.

Sell by: Manufacturers put these dates on products so stores know how long to display a food. Never buy food if the sell-by date has expired but if you have it at home past the date, it’s probably ok. What really matters is if the food was properly stored and at the right temperature in the store and at home.

The safest way to store food
Regardless of the date on the package, if you take too long to bring the food home, or don’t store it properly, it can still be unsafe to eat. Make the grocery store your last stop before heading home and use a cooler or thermal bag for cold and frozen items.

Use a refrigerator thermometer to make sure your refrigerator is 40 degrees or colder and store the most perishable items in the coldest spots. And never put fruit in the sun to ripen because it could cause bacteria to grow.

“It makes them go quickly from unripe to rotten,” said Dr. Christine Bruhn, director of the Center for Consumer research at University of California, Davis.

In addition, there are some things to consider when deciding to keep or discard some common types of food.

Fruits and vegetables
Always look for mold, bruises or damage, which could mean the food was exposed to temperatures in transportation that caused it to deteriorate more quickly, Luptowski said. You can usually keep uncut produce for a few weeks, but once it’s been cut, refrigerate it and eat it within 3 to 4 days.

Pantry items
Canned and dried goods, spices and nuts won’t go bad but they will be the freshest by the best if used by date.

“The quality’s going to go down once you open it,” Luptowski said.  

Throw away cans that leak or bulge and never use baby food or formula after the date on the package.

Milk, cheese, and yogurt
Discard these after the date on the package and don’t store them on the door where it’s warmer. Milk should be ok to drink 7 to 10 days after the sell-by date as long as you keep it cold, Bruhn said. Soft cheeses are ok to eat up to a week, while hard cheeses can stay good for 3 or 4 weeks. You can also freeze cheese for up to 6 months.  

Eggs
Uncooked eggs can be refrigerated for 3 to 5 weeks. Some states require expiration dates, but they’re still safe to eat past this date.

Meat and chicken
Raw, ground meat and fresh poultry can stay in the refrigerator for 1 to 2 days, while other cuts can stay 3 to 5 days. Ground meat can stay frozen for 1 to 2 months, while chicken, steak, or roasts can be frozen 6 months or more. You can defrost meat up to a day in the refrigerator.

Fish and seafood
Fish should be cooked within one or two days and can be frozen for 3 to 6 months. Fatty fish like salmon have a shorter freezer life than lean fish like cod.

Bread
Always follow the use-by date, especially if you store bread on the counter. Storing it in the refrigerator will prolong freshness, but it might make it stale. You can also freeze bread up to 3 months.

Leftovers
Discard leftovers within 3 to 4 days or freeze them up to 3 months.

Onions and garlic
These should be stored in a cool, dry place. Yellow onions can stay fresh for a few weeks and red onions can stay up to 30 days. Cut or peeled onions should be stored in the refrigerator and used within a week. Garlic can be kept at room temperature for 1 to 2 months but once it’s peeled, refrigerate and use it within 5 to 10 days.

Oil
Store oil in a cool, dark place away from the sunlight and heat, which can reduce the quality. If it smells funny, throw it out.  

Julie Revelant is a health journalist and a consultant who provides content marketing and copywriting services for the healthcare industry. She's also a mom of two. Learn more about Julie at revelantwriting.com.