Does Milk Spoil Early In NYC? Explaining Milk Sell By Dates

Glass of milk / Photo by E. A. Wright
Glass of milk / Photo by E. A. Wright

MILK DATE UPDATE

Milk cartons no longer come stamped with two dates. The city finally removed the requirement. The last dual-stamped carton that made it to my fridge was around Christmas in 2010. Such cartons – and this article – are now pieces of history. Complaints about spoiled milk in the city continue, however.

WHEN MILK GOES BAD

Soured milk is very disgusting kind of sludge, no question about it.

In one of the first places I ever lived on my own, I had an ancient mini fridge that never quite stayed cool enough. I learned this on a hot summer's day, when, deciding to take advantage of the pleasures of not sharing a kitchen with anyone else, I got out a week-old quart of milk and gulped straight from the carton.

What an unforgettable horror! The taste. The smell. The aftertaste. The gooey, curdled chunks that stuck to the roof of the mouth, the tongue, the teeth. The gag reflex. The fact that this reflex did not kick in until one mouthful was already down.

Wiser after this experience, I started checking milk very carefully before pouring. I learned to grow wary as the expiration date approached.

Yet moving to New York City has presented a New Milk Challenge: what to make of the pair of conflicting expiration dates printed on most milk containers sold in the city?


JUNE 10? OR JUNE 5?

Closeup of a NYC sell by date. Note that the expiration is June 5th in the city, but June 10th anywhere else / Photo by E. A. Wright
Closeup of a NYC sell by date. Note that the expiration is June 5th in the city, but June 10th anywhere else / Photo by E. A. Wright

THE NEW YORK CITY SELL BY DATE

Take the carton of milk I bought on June 1 from a nearby Associated. The large print expiration date on the carton is June 10th, but directly underneath, in smaller print, it says: "NYC JUN 05."

Which is it? Why the multiple dates? Does milk really spoil five days early in New York City?

Without any clear explanation in stores, these conflicting expiration dates can give the impression that something goes terribly awry with milk the second it enters the boundaries of New York City.

Relative newcomers to the city — myself included — are left to imagine that there's something in the very city air that suddenly morphs milk into a dirtier, fouler and more dangerous substance. Might this prove, once and for all, that New York City is part of some alternate universe, set apart from the rest of the country?

It turns out that the specific-to-New-York-City expiration date says plenty about the power of the city's Health Department to affect the external appearance of milk cartons — and says very little about whether the city's peculiarities actually damage the milk inside.


HEALTH DEPARTMENT MILK RULES

New York City's rules on milk expiration dates / Screenshot by E. A. Wright from The Public Access Portal To the Laws Of the City Of New York
New York City's rules on milk expiration dates / Screenshot by E. A. Wright from The Public Access Portal To the Laws Of the City Of New York
Milk cartons / Photo by E. A. Wright
Milk cartons / Photo by E. A. Wright

WHAT DO YOU DO WITH BORDERLINE BAD MILK?

When a carton of milk passes its expiration date, you ...

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Milk cartons stamped with NYC sell by dates / Photo by E. A. Wright
Milk cartons stamped with NYC sell by dates / Photo by E. A. Wright

DID YOU KNOW?

There are no federal standard for milk expiration dates, and, in many areas, milk producers and distributors get to use expiration dates of their own choosing.

MAKE MILK LAST

  • According to a fact sheet on safe food handling from the United States Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service, "refrigerators should be set to maintain a temperature of 40 °F or below."
  • And always put milk away as soon as you get home from the store.

TRY POWDERED MILK

THE 9 DAY RULE

Dig up a copy of Rules of the City of New York, go to Title 24 and dig some more in the milk section and you'll find this requirement: "No person shall possess, store, offer for sale, sell, give away or distribute any such product the label of which bears an expiration date beyond the period specified in this section. The expiration date shall not be more than nine (9) calendar days following the date of pasteurization."

There it is: New York City's 9 Day Rule For Milk.

The milk rules go on to explain just how that expiration date must be marked on milk cartons. The date "shall be expressed by the first three letters of the month followed by the numeral or numerals constituting the appropriate calender date." It also has to be inked on "legibly and conspicuously."

Now, about the multiple expiration dates on each milk carton. Consider it just another side effect of a mish-mash of regulations in the New York metropolitan area.

Milk sold on Long Island, for instance, has to meet the less strict requirements of New York's Department of Agriculture and Markets — while nearby states also have their own requirements for expiration dates. In Connecticut, for example, the expiration date can be up to 12 days after pasteurization.

Facing all these differing standards for expiration dates in one geographic area, milk distributors choose to simplify things for themselves. They just print two expiration dates on milk cartons destined for New York City.

HISTORY

While the 9 Day Rule in the city has a relatively short history, helping shoppers steer clear of spoiled milk has been a political issue in New York City for a full century.

The last time the city's sell-by date requirements changed was in 1987, extending the expiration date to 9 days after pasteurization, up from four days.

A New York Times article from that era — "Milk's Shelf Life: Is Longer Better?" — recounts some of this history: "In 1911 the sales period was set at 36 hours. Except for the period between 1960 and 1962, when the state pre-empted localities in dating milk, the city has steadily extended that time, until in 1978 it reached the current four days. The extensions were pegged partly to technological advances, partly to political maneuvering."

There have continued to be periodic bursts of outrage over spoiled or expired products on store shelves, but there has been no reversal in the trend toward easing the stringency of the city's expiration dates.

DOES THE EXPIRATION DATE EVEN MATTER?

In all the questioning and debate over the city's unique rules for dating milk, there seems to be an acknowledgment that Milk Selling In New York City Is Just Different. There a running thread that maybe there's some truth to the fear that milk just doesn't last long enough here.

There's this, for example, from "F.Y.I. City Milk's Hard Life," a New York Times article from March 24, 1998: "According to John Gadd, a spokesman for the city's Department of Health, milk shipped to New York is more likely to stand unrefrigerated for brief periods, both before it reaches store shelves and also on the way from store to home. 'It's one of those uniquely New York sorts of things,' he said."

Others have more directly blamed local grocery store practices. In a 2009 Atlantic article "New York City's Milk Mystery," a milk producer complained: "If there's any reason that milk goes bad quicker in New York City, it's because stores don't adhere to the state-mandated 45-degree temperature ceiling for stocking perishables."

In my admittedly limited experience, it does seem hard unusually to find milk with a decent amount of life left in it in New York City, at least when compared to others places I've lived. The local grocery and drug stores I rely on now usually stock milk that is already very, very close to the city's expiration date. (This is more true with skim milk and half gallon sized cartons, for whatever reason.)

Milk does usually last beyond the NYC date, but rarely does it last for a full week after purchase.

I suspect that the cramped nature of the typical neighborhood grocery store is a big part of the problem. Navigating crowded sidewalks and entrance ways during delivery and unloading probably takes extra time, lengthening the period milk is in transit outside a refrigerated truck and refrigerated storage inside the store. Within the store, crowded aisles mean store employees have to interrupt their restocking efforts to let customers pass, lengthening the time milk sits in crates on the floor before making it onto refrigerated shelves.

And no expiration date (or dates) are likely to fix that.


NYC sell by dates apply to both skim and whole milk Milk / Photo by E. A. Wright
NYC sell by dates apply to both skim and whole milk Milk / Photo by E. A. Wright

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Comments 2 comments

bingskee profile image

bingskee 6 years ago from Quezon City, Philippines

i am not a fan of milk. but oh, wow, soured milk is a bad bad experience for anyone.


BetteMachete profile image

BetteMachete 6 years ago

This is very informative, and it answered a lot of questions I didn't even know I had! Cheers for exploring the "double" expiration dates.

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