Supermarket Eliminates 'Use By' Dates on Milk, Tells Shoppers to Use Sniff Test

Morrisons wants to reduce the amount of milk going to waste unnecessarily.

getting a jug of milk from the fridge

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People in Britain will have to start relying on their noses rather their eyeballs when detecting whether or not a container of milk is still good to drink

A major supermarket chain, Morrisons, has announced that it will be eliminating "use by" dates on 90% of milk sold in stores by the end of January. The decision is part of an effort to reduce the enormous quantities of milk that are discarded due to consumer misunderstanding over printed expiry dates. This waste results in unnecessary carbon entering the atmosphere and the squandering of valuable resources required to raise dairy cattle.

Morrisons says it will keep using "best before" dates, which indicate the date at which the milk loses its optimal taste, but does not instantly go bad. It offers some basic guidance for assessing milk's drinkability—which, though it might be helpful to some, indicates an amusing yet appalling cluelessness about food (via the Guardian):

"Customers should check milk by holding the bottle to their nose. If it smells sour then it may have spoiled. If it has curdled and lumps have formed that is also a sign it should not be used. Milk's life can be extended by keeping it cool, and keeping bottles closed as much as possible."

The move is hoped to cut down on the 330,000 tonnes of milk that are wasted in the U.K. every year, roughly 7% of national production. The vast majority of waste occurs in the home, with the Guardian reporting that milk is the third most wasted food item after potatoes and bread. 

Numbers are high elsewhere, too. Denise Philippe, senior advisor to the National Zero Waste Council and Metro Vancouver, told Treehugger that, in Canada, one million cups of milk are wasted daily, and dairy and eggs make up 7% of the most prominently wasted foods by weight. 

Although the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) has made some progress on decoding food expiry dates for shoppers, the problem has not been solved. The Consumer Goods Forum has also recommended global simplification of food expiry labels, but nothing has been set in stone or is binding. Most labels are voluntary and arbitrary, except for foods that expire in less than 90 days—although even then, as Philippe explains, 

"It is up to businesses to determine which food has less than 90 days shelf life. The range of interpretation of this is significant. Best before dates can be applied at the point of processing and manufacturing, but also at the point of assembly. There is little guidance on how to determine what the actual date is, nor what expertise is required to determine the date. This means that best before dates are too often applied in an inconsistent manner."

She goes on to say that these date labels are one of the leading causes of food loss and waste. "While CFIA, through its Food Label Modernization, has made changes such as standardizing date formats (for example, reducing confusion over whether the label 1/2 refers to Jan. 2 or Feb. 1), there is still a lack of public understanding that 'best before' refers to peak freshness and does not reference a health and safety concern."

And that is why Morrisons' change might not be as effective as it hopes. Simply eliminating "use by" while keeping "best before" might be too subtle a change for most shoppers to grasp. A bolder change of language would be a better option. As Philippe suggests, food manufacturers could remove best before date labels altogether and replace with clearer wording that provides explicit direction to consumers, such as "Peak Quality" or a combination of "Use By/Freeze By."

The U.K.'s anti-food waste charity Wrap sees Morrisons' move as a positive step, one that will hopefully influence other supermarkets to do the same. "It shows real leadership and we look forward to more retailers reviewing date labels on their products and taking action," Wrap's CEO Marcus Gover tells the Guardian.

People need not wait around for supermarkets or food manufacturers to take action, however. They can just start using their senses (including common) to assess whether or not they'd like to eat or drink something. If something looks and smells fine, it probably is, especially if it's going to be cooked thoroughly. This takes practice, of course, but considering that most of us eat three times a day, there's plenty of opportunity for that.