"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. I ruined his breakfast.
“It’s not bad. I used it twenty minutes ago.”
“LOOK AT THE DATE!”
The date’s yesterday. I explain what a “sell-by” date is—an estimate. 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 tell him the milk’s “good” one more time.
“It’s yogurt milk! I’m not drinking it!” he says. “Yogurt milk” is what we call extra milk. I’ll make yogurt or farmer’s cheese.
I shrug and tell him to make his cereal or starve.
I don’t blame him for the confusion—the food industry is so tied up with laws, it’s hard to understand. I’m a big fan of food safety. Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle is real American history. There are lines in the sand I won’t cross and food safety hills I’ll die on.
“I won’t eat that, it’s going to expire,” isn’t one of them. I’ve seen more shelf-stable food go into the trash even before the expiration dates. Some of that food’s designed to last clear through the next zombie apocalypse.
Food labeling and expiration dates do protect the consumer in some cases—I wouldn’t mess with the expired chicken or seafood, for example. But even in the meat and fresh food department laws are ambiguous. Let’s look at a few stakes. Put them in the store, and they have one “sell by” date, but give them to a chef and it can be almost a week later.
The real truth is, there is no federal date regulation for anything except baby food and formula. The only FDA requirement is that the food you buy be “wholesome and good.” And, what’s “wholesome” to one person could be junk to another.
Expiration dates are a state-by-state free-for-all made up of codes and legislation drafted—in many cases—by state regulators who usually aren’t farmers or food scientists.
Stop and read some regs if you can find them. You’ll find some interesting things.
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 each safe and healthy per state code.
In my state, stores can’t sell bake goods past the sell-by date, but the same code doesn’t apply to some other food categories.
Also, if a farmer takes meat to a farmer’s market and keeps it frozen, then doesn’t sell it all that day, they’re required to throw it out. It can’t be sold. And as I said earlier, here meat, “sell-by” dates are one-week longer for restaurants than stores.
In the next state over—for me, that’s ten minutes down the road—orchards can’t use freshly-fallen apples from their trees for cider. If the apple’s touched the ground (which is how a tree tells you fruit is ripe), it’s got to go into the trash—there’s no common sense provision for tossing the junky fruit and using the good stuff.
The bottom line is we’ve got fifty states requiring fifty million different things.
I don’t understand how meat lasts longer under the supervision of a chef, how frozen meat can spoil if unsold that day day, or how a fallen apple in one state might be less healthy as cider in one state than 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 waste less, because food is so very hard to produce in the first place.
And, no self-respecting pioneer ever date-stamped their harvest.
“Jeb, let’s have a barbecue this weekend, that corn crop’s about to expire.”
“Yeah, Mary, the apple crop’s going out of code tomorrow, we’re gonna have to make some serious pies…” said no homesteader ever.
I often rescue food. 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 almost always said no—they’re terrified of the liability. What if someone eats the bread a day after the date and we get sued?,
Because of this, big stores often 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.” But they do if you give them. There’s a food bank in my area supplied in that way.
Still, stores are scared. I offered to take produce from a store to a soup kitchen on a regular basis.
“You can’t. You need a refrigerated box truck.” Apparently, there’s a law about that. I only had a Subaru, so they said no.
I also couldn’t glean (pick leftovers or crops grown in public areas) a blueberry field even though the farmer said yes. I was going to make and bring jam to the veteran’s retirement home. They couldn’t take it. “Sorry, you don’t have a certified kitchen.”
Some stores here reduce waste by giving produce to farmers for their pigs. Even that’s not clear according to the code. State code says you need a license to feed produce to swine and you have to heat treat it first. Nobody’s going to cook a meal for their pigs. “Hold on, Charlotte, the marinara’s almost ready.” Any farmer who has pigs doesn’t need ten state congressional committees writing code to know how to feed them.
Back to the milk waste issue.
I used to change dates on bottles with fine-tipped black Sharpies if I thought the kid would complain. l’d turn a “one” into a “ten” or write over a number with a pixelated font. Once I made something expire on January 32nd, but nobody noticed. Rice Krispies never tell.
I don’t serve spoiled food. I just use some common sense. When bottled water has an expiration date and is stamped “gluten free” and “organic” we’ve got a common sense crisis. Learning about food quality, safety, and preservation helps me respect the food and avoid rising prices, too.
It’s hard to raise food. I 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 to say, “Thanks! I appreciate you,” is to avoid waste.
Bonus idea for using up extra milk:
If you save some cultures from each batch, it’s literally a lifetime of yogurt. My favorites: Filmjölk and Matsoni. They can be cultured on the countertop and are delicious. This link has 4 types of countertop yogurt. Filmjölk, Piima, Viili, and Matsoni. Try a bunch!
Too much yogurt? Strain it in a nut milk bag or with some cheesecloth and make a farmer’s cheese. I salt it, add herbs, and use it on bagels.
You can also culture any of the yogurts above into a sour cream by using heavy cream instead of milk.