Harvard Investigates Milk Rules in Montana, Where Stringent Sell-By Dates Trump Food Safety

Montana has the strictest sell-by policy in the entire country, and it forces stores to get rid of perfectly safe milk

Photo Sasabune Omakase Modified: Flickr/erin/CC 4.0

The only other state with a sell-by date requirement is Pennsylvania, where milk must be sold in 17 days. 

A documentary film crew from Harvard Law School’s Food Law and Policy Clinic has traveled to Missoula, Montana, to make sense of the state’s incredibly strict rules for milk’s sell-by dates.

In Montana, the law dictates that milk must be thrown out 12 days after pasteurization, even though “studies have shown that it’s just as fresh after 28 days,” clinic director Emily Broad Leib told The Montana Standard.

“We’re trying to understand whether that impacts consumers or what they think that date means. It’s arbitrarily very short, and it’s not just a waste of people’s food but a waste of money.”

Many other states do not require a sell-by date, and various state boards, including the one in New York, have determined that sell-by dates merely “are provided by manufacturers so that products are aesthetically attractive in at the time of purchase with respect to taste, smell and appearance,” but “dating is no longer necessary because of technological advances in sanitation, processing standards and refrigeration.”

In Montana, however, milk that has passed it 12-day limit cannot be sold or donated, and grocers must dump the lot.

“Every time I have to throw out a gallon of milk I cringe,” grocery owner Kim Edwards told The Montana Standard. “Because it’s not 50 cents. It’s $2.50, and the grocery business is a penny business.”

The law also makes milk prices higher in Montana than in surrounding states like Idaho and Wyoming, which do not have specific date labeling laws.

The film project is an attempt to help educate consumers on the truth behind sell-by dates, and perhaps change the state policy, which was first introduced in 1980.

“We hope that it raises general awareness about these laws and expiration dates, the fact that milk, even when it spoils, doesn’t pose a safety risk,” filmmaker Rebecca Richman Cohen told The Montana Standard. “Pasteurization kills all the pathogens. So it’s going to be a little gross if you drink spoiled milk, but it’s definitely not a danger. So people that are just going based on dates and throwing it out just because of the ‘sell by’ date are costing themselves a lot of money and wasting good food. And so we hope to educate consumers and we also hope to change laws.”

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