Why You Should Keep Drinking Milk Long After Its Sell-By Date

A Harvard mini doc explains why, contrary to popular belief, even spoiled milk won’t make you sick.
Feb 15, 2016· 1 MIN READ
Samantha Cowan is an associate editor for culture.

Before filling up a bowl of cereal or dunking a cookie in glass of milk, many of us check the carton’s use-by or sell-by date. What we may not realize is that doing so leads many Americans to senselessly dump milk down the drain. That problem is exacerbated in one state in particular, owing to its strict labeling laws.

The new mini documentary Expired: Food Waste in America explores how confusing expiration dates fuel food waste in America. Created by the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic, the five-minute film looks in particular at Montana’s milk regulations and how they are indicative of larger food-waste problems across the U.S.

Regulations on what constitutes a sell-by date vary by state, with New York and Colorado not forcing manufacturers to issue sell-by dates on any products. Montana has the nation’s strictest state laws for milk, requiring all milk containers to be marked with a date of just 12 days after pasteurization. Stores can neither sell nor donate milk past this date. A single Montana store can toss out as much as 100 gallons each week.

The dairy industry standard is that milk maintains its freshness for 21 to 24 days after it is pasteurized. Some experts estimate that milk will maintain its freshness for about another week after that, for a total of four weeks. That means Montana store owners could be disposing of milk nearly two weeks earlier than necessary.

What’s more, some 90 percent of consumers toss out food items that have passed their expiration dates out of fear of getting sick, according to a 2013 Harvard study. But while the smell of spoiled milk might make you gag, it won’t do much more than that. Pasteurization kills harmful pathogens that typically cause food-borne illnesses. So drinking milk past the sell-by date—even if it’s smelly and chunky, if you’re into that sort of thing—is not dangerous.

Roughly 40 percent of all food produced in the U.S. goes to waste, according to the USDA. Not only does this fuel climate change, as the agricultural sector is a major source of greenhouse gases even before food decays in a Dumpster, but that food could go to someone who needs it.

“It’s very frustrating watching stuff going down the drain that could be going to a needy family,” said Montana dairy manager Ken Carson. Mirroring the national figure, about 14 percent of Montana households are food insecure, according to Feeding America.

Researchers from the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic are calling on federal agencies to step in and regulate all food-labeling dates and to clear up the confusion about safety by using phrases such as “best if used by” to indicate that dates refer to freshness. As the USDA and EPA have pledged to cut food waste 50 percent by 2030, clarifying expiration dates could be a good place to start.