Expiration dates don’t always tell the real story behind a product’s longevity …

We’ve all lost a thing or two in the darkness of a refrigerator’s corner, tucked back where eyes never see and arms aren’t long enough to get at until you need whatever it is again — penniless, starving and scavenging like a plump autumn chipmunk. The carton might be days past expired, but looks and smells perfectly fine. What do you do?

Some of us are going to immediately sniff whatever it is, we can’t help it. Others (some 90 percent of Americans) are going to toss it, regardless of how edible it actually is. The problem with the latter is that it accounts for 40 percent of our nation’s food supply being chucked before it goes bad.

As it stands, expiration dates are flawed. They mean very little and don’t have regulated standards to back them up.

On its website, the FDA explains it doesn’t “require food firms to place ‘expired by,’ ‘use by’ or ‘best before’ dates on food products. This information is entirely at the discretion of the manufacturer.” The only thing it does require to have a date on is infant formula, since the nutrients lose potency as time goes on.

For everything else, the quality and safety of it should be viewed with discretion on a product-to-product basis. This is mainly because there isn’t any real way to tell when most foods go bad. There are too many factors in figuring it all out, including (but not limited to) altitude, the weather, conditions on the sales floor and if a person adheres to general rules of food preservation.

Likewise, these dates have little to do with the safety of the food. Even milk or meat that has clearly gone bad and is spoiled isn’t necessarily going to make you sick, says John Ruff, president of the Institute of Food Technologists in Chicago to NPR. “Very often, you won’t eat it because of the smell, and you probably won’t like the taste, but in a lot of cases, it’s unlikely to cause you illness.”

In fact, he continues, it’s not the actual spoiling of food that makes people sick, it’s whether or not it gets contaminated with salmonella, listeria bacteria or certain strains of E. coli. Even then, a food can still be preserved and taste fine before getting someone sick.

Many experts agree, using the sight and sniff test is the best way to evaluate if you’re good to go. It’s all a matter of preference and if you can stand eating a discolored pork chop or mowing down a bowl of crunchier Cheerios than when you bought the box 3 years ago. Keeping this in mind can save the country an incredible amount of waste and you a bunch of money in the process.