Expired Milk, or Is It? Whimsical Expiration Dates and Real Life Food Waste

by Ally Gallop, RD, CDE

Every year in the United States roughly 40 percent of the food and beverages produced go to waste. Not only are perfectly fine items being trashed, households are losing on average $1,560 to $2,275 annually! In 2013, the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic (FLPC) and the National Resources Defense Council co-published a comprehensive report outlining American food waste secondary to arbitrarily set food and beverage expiration dates. Three years later, the FLPC released a brief video appealing to the masses on the same topic. So do you know what the expiration dates on your foods really mean?

First off, entertain yourself with John Oliver’s take on food waste:

Now that you’re primed on the topic, complete this pop quiz on expiration dates and food waste:

  1. How many days after milk pasteurization occurs may pasteurized milk safely be consumed?
    a. Only up until the date stamped onto the container
    b. Regardless of the stamped date, 17-20 days
    c. Regardless of the stamped date, 21-24 days
  1. A food or beverage’s date label is determined by each U.S. state. What are these dates generally based on?
    a. Optimal food quality and freshness
    b. Strict food safety guidelines
    c. A specific number of days after packaging
  1. If food waste was a country, how would it rank as a global carbon-emitter?
    a. The worst
    b. The second worst
    c. The third worst

Why milk?

Ninety percent of Americans admit to throwing out foods and beverages past their date, thinking the items are unsafe for consumption. Ultimately, an estimated 160 billion pounds of food are thrown out annually.

Speaking to the FLPC, milk was chosen for their consumer video for the very reason that milk is a familiar grocery item. Milk waste is also visually impactful: Watching gallons of milk being poured down the drain due to arbitrary expiration dates is unsettling. But that’s the point. Rather than spit out facts or fill endless pages of text, the FLPC aimed to create a short video swiftly outlining why food waste and its associated laws are a problem, all by using a relatable product: milk.

Expiration, best-by, sell-by dates, etc.: Who decides?

The variety of dates that exist on food labels is left to the discretion of individual states. Expiration dates are not federally regulated. In Massachusetts, and with a few food exceptions, only packaged perishable or semi-perishable foods require dates.

The FLPC’s video is based in Montana, chosen for its strict “sell-by date:” Twelve days after milk is pasteurized, sales and donations of the milk are prohibited—any milk at grocery stores or any other establishment must be discarded. Yet other states allow for milk to be sold 21 to 28 days!

Montana’s prohibited laws are misguided likely due to the fear and misinformation that old milk makes people sick. But the science doesn’t support this. Here’s really why milk curdles, sours, and smells:

  • Curdled milk: Over time, milk becomes more acidic allowing proteins like casein to clump together.
  • Sour milk: The milk’s ever present and naturally occurring lactic acid bacteria ferments lactose.
  • Smelly milk: This is caused by microbes entering the milk when the container is repeatedly opened and duplicating at room temperature, bacteria breaking down milk proteins and butterfat, and molds that act on lactic acid and proteins.

However, drinking past-its-prime milk won’t induce a foodborne illness! Since milk is pasteurized, it does not contain harmful bacteria like Salmonella or E. coli commonly responsible for illness.

The future in food expiration date labels

Current date labels are more often related to the product’s sensory quality than its safety for human consumption. Yet if dates were extended then less milk in the U.S. would likely be produced and sold, which would be bad for dairy farmers and a state’s gross domestic product. This is reason enough for the federal government to step in with an all-encompassing regulation.

Ideally, the FLPC envisions federally mandated expiration dates be supported by scientific research. Consistency in labeling would be ideal for consumer understanding and education campaigns. The FLPC proposes only two unambiguous labels to be present on foods and beverages:

  1. “Best if used by” (optional): Indicates best quality before the date and to use best judgment thereafter.
  2. “Expires on:” For items requiring a safety-based label (e.g., deli meats).

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) added political support last month by introducing legislation standardizing date labeling and those that are based on science.

Current consumer food trends are towards increased demand for fresh foods, which likely doesn’t include past-date milk. However, the FLPC does suggest providing financial incentives or discounted milk for product sold after the “best if used by” date. Or, retailers could choose to donate the product.

By now you’re likely dying to know the answers to the initial pop quiz. Here you go!

  1. C – see FLPC Op-Ed
  2. A – see FLPC fact sheet
  3. C – see Mother Jones

Learn more about the FLPC’s current initiatives

EXPIRED? FLPC food waste website and direct link to the video.

Facebook: Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic

Ally Gallop, RD, CDE is a second-year nutrition communication and behavior change student focusing in U.S. food and nutrition policy. She ignores expiration dates in favor of the smell test.

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