"That Milk's Expired!"

And other dumb rules that cause us to waste a ton of our food

“That milk’s bad, I can’t drink it!” The boy’s angry. My lack of shopping ruined his breakfast.

“The milk isn’t bad. I used it twenty minutes ago.” It’s 100% fine.

“LOOK AT THE DATE!”

I look. I see the date’s yesterday. I explain it’s a “sell-by” date. An estimate. And if they sold it to me yesterday, I wouldn’t have finished it by today anyway. Either way, it’d still be in the fridge waiting for his Rice Krispies.

I pronounce the milk “good” one more time.

“It’s yogurt milk! I’m not drinking it!”

“Yogurt milk” is what we call extra milk. If I’ve got too much, I’ll make yogurt or cheese. I do not turn spoiled food into other food.

He’s stubborn, so I have one more piece of helpful advice, “Make your cereal or starve. But let’s call it a ‘cleansing fast.’ Makes me look like a better mom.”

No matter how many times I explain “best by” or “sell-by dates, Declan is obsessed with whether food has expired.

Much of America is, too. “I won’t eat that, it’s going to expire.” I’ve heard that even about shelf-stable foods designed to last clear through the next zombie apocalypse.

The truth is, there is no federal date regulation for anything except baby food and formula. The only FDA requirement is that food be “wholesome and good.”

Otherwise, it’s a state-by-state free-for-all of codes made by regulators who usually aren’t farmers or food scientists.

Food safety’s important, but if you stop and read the regs you’d ask yourself, “Do these people even have work to do?”

It was easier to find two pages on the definition of a bushel of apples or the required size of an egg than for me to find anything remotely addressing what makes any of that safe and healthy per state code.

In my state, you can’t sell past-date baked goods. That same code doesn’t apply to other food categories.

Also, if a farmer takes frozen local meat to a farmer’s market and keeps it frozen, anything that doesn’t sell that day must must be tossed—or eaten by the farmer, because it can’t be sold.

And in this state, “sell-by” dates for meat are one-week longer for restaurants than stores.

Cross the border into the next state and farmers aren’t allowed to use freshly-fallen apples from their trees for cider. If the apple’s touched the ground (which is how a tree tells you it’s ripe), it’s trash.

So, you’ve got fifty states requiring fifty million different things.

I can’t understand how meat stays better longer under the supervision of a chef instead of a grocer, how frozen meat can spoil in the space of a day, or how a fallen apple in one state might be less healthy turned into cider in one state over another.

Let me be clear: I’m not dumpster diving here.

I’m not a dumpster diver, freegan, or advocate for “save at all costs.” That’s not realistic, healthy, or gourmet. I just want to rescue some of the food we toss, because it’s so very hard to produce it in the first place.

And no self-respecting pioneer ever date-stamped their harvest.

“Jeb, we’ve got to get a barbecue going this weekend, that corn crop’s about to expire.”

“Yeah, Mary, the apple crop goes out of code tomorrow, we’re gonna have to make some serious pies…” said no homesteader ever.

I used to take bread from bakeries at closing time and bring it to shelters under cover of darkness. These were small bakers who didn’t want to waste. Big stores are terrified of the liability exposure, so they toss—or worse, intentionally destroy—foods and products instead of donating them.

The Harvard Food Law Policy Clinic wrote about this. Here’s their report on excessive food waste, and here’s a chart showing state laws by food category. There’s a chart showing you can’t get sued in most states for donating past-date food. In my state it has a little asterisk saying “protections don’t apply if the food is sold.”

Even so, stores are scared. I offered to take produce from a store to a soup kitchen.

“You can’t. You need a refrigerated box truck.” I also couldn’t glean a blueberry field with the blessing of the farmer, make jam, and bring it to the veteran’s retirement home. “Sorry, you don’t have a certified kitchen.”

Some stores here give produce to farmers for their pigs. Even that’s shady according to code. State code says you need a license to feed produce to swine and you have to heat treat it first.

That’s probably why I see so many farmers standing near their pig pens with Forman grills and Instant Pots tossing honey-braised and grilled carrots to their swine.

Back to milk waste.

I’m not going to lie, I’ve changed dates on bottles with fine-tipped black Sharpies from time to time. I’ll turn a “one” into a “ten” or something in dotted pixelated font. Once I made the milk expire on January 32nd, but nobody noticed and the crime remained undetected.

Rice Krispies never tell.

(I really will toss it if it’s sour, I promise.)

Bottom line:

It’s hard to raise food. I’ve come to appreciate just what goes into everything I grow—and especially the things I can’t.

My farmer has three jobs. The best way I can think of to say, “Thanks! I appreciate you,” (besides saying “Thanks, I appreciate you.”) is to commit to doing better on my end and not letting that hard work go to waste.


Recipes and bonuses:

I was thinking of finding an affiliate link for Sharpies so you can outwit your picky kids, too. But do this instead:

Try making some yogurt. My original cultures came from Cultures for Health. They don’t pay me to compliment them. I just like their cultures.

If I take care of them, they’ll last until the cows come home (which means forever because I don’t have cows). Sometimes I kill the cultures when I forget about them in the fridge or on the counter. Then, I buy more.

Favorites: Filmjölk and Matsoni. (This link has 4 types of countertop yogurt. Filmjölk, Piima, Viili, and Matsoni. They’ll send you two a piece, and you can freeze them. Then, use one and when you forget about it and kill it, you have a million back ups!)