99% Invisible: Best Enjoyed By | KALW

99% Invisible: Best Enjoyed By

Jul 29, 2016

On the July 29, 2016 edition of 99% Invisible.

Every day, workers at grocery stores and convenience stores in Montana carry out a sad ritual. They come in, check the “sell-by” dates on their milk and throw out any milk that’s past the date.

Montana throws more milk down the drain than other states because the sell-by date on the milk is required by state law to be just 12 days after pasteurization (the industry standard is 21 days). After these 12 days, Montana law requires that the milk be thrown away. It can’t be sold or donated. Thousands of gallons of milk are thrown away each week that many believe is perfectly fine to drink.

In theory, Montana’s strict date label law is about food safety and protecting the consumer. But it hasn’t been updated since the 80s, and some believe it’s more about protecting the interests of the dairy industry.

Date labels of course, aren’t just on milk, they’re on a lot of products. Forty-one states require a date label on at least some food product but there are huge inconsistencies, not just in the wording, but in the meaning of these labels. Some states require them only on dairy, some on shellfish, some on any perishable foods.

It’s become complicated to decipher these dates, or to know how to act on them, for large retailers and individual consumers alike. And despite what many people assume, they are not about food safety, and were actually never meant to be.

It all began in the 1970s. Americans had moved further away from their food sources and were eating more packaged foods and getting more of their food in supermarkets. Consumers wanted a way to measure how fresh their food was. At the time, most manufacturers already put encrypted dates on their products to help retailers rotate stock and consumers craved access to this information [...]