Why expiration dates on food hardly matter

shooting at milk jugs - Expired film
Screen capture Expired film -- A man uses expired jugs of milk for target practice in Montana.

A short documentary shows how unregulated and arbitrary date labelling is in the United States, and why we SHOULD be crying over spilled milk.

In Montana, if you have milk that’s more than 12 days old from the time of pasteurization, you have to throw it out. You cannot sell it or donate it to anyone; but you can use it for target practice, as you’ll see in the opening scene of a new documentary film in which gallon jugs of milk are set in strategic positions on a hillside, only to explode in fragments of plastic and dairy when struck by a bullet.

The five-minute film is called “Expired? Food Waste in America.” It was made by students from the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic who are angry about the grotesque amount of food waste that is a direct result of expiration dates.

Expiration dates were created with the best of intentions – to protect citizens from getting sick from bad food. Expiration dates today, however, are entirely unregulated, which means that food manufacturers can print whatever they want on a container. This can result in manufacturers choosing closer dates in order to encourage consumption.

"Date labels should say what they mean and mean what they say."

Worse yet, it creates confusion among shoppers who see the different versions of expiration dates, i.e. “sell by,” “best before,” “expires,” "packaged on," etc., and do not understand what they mean. Many people tend to throw away food past the date on its packaging without even testing it because they are under the assumption that expired means ‘bad.’

Take milk, for example. Montana’s law makes no sense because milk lasts much longer than 12 days, more like three weeks before it starts to taste slightly off. Even when that happens, milk does not actually become dangerous for human consumption. The Expired film shows the students sitting in a lab, sipping cups of milk of varying ages. Only once does someone get a nasty mouthful, but he does not become ill.

Food scientist Dan Schaffner explains in the film:

“Milk is pasteurized which means that it should not contain pathogenic bacteria like salmonella and E-coli. The risks from drinking spoiled milk are virtually zero. The practices around dating of foods are just a complete mess and anything that we can do to help consumers understand what dates mean and to use dates in a sensible way – I think that’s a good thing.”

The film calls for the end of senseless and conflicting state laws, as well as a federal law that standardizes expiration dates across all products. Any restrictions should be science-based, and all should be explained to consumers – perhaps including students in public schools, where much of this important education could begin. According to the film's creators, "Date labels should say what they mean and mean what they say." Hopefully this film will inspire the changes in policy that are required to combat the excessive food waste in the United States.

You can watch the film for free on the Expired website.

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