Should You Throw Out That Milk? The Truth About ‘Sell By’ Dates

Last Update: April 5, 2023

We’ve all been there: You open the fridge to grab a carton of milk, only to remember that it’s been a week or more since you bought it. You check the date that’s printed on the package—but it’s already passed.

What do you do next? Most of us give it the old sniff test, our brains already tricked to expect something putrid by the long-gone date we just saw. Others skip the smell test and pour the milk right down the drain.

Chances are, that milk you just pitched was perfectly fine to drink. What a waste.

Why? That date you saw probably had “best before” or “sell by” before it, referring to the fairly arbitrary moment in time when the milk will be at its peak quality. Most people understandably, but incorrectly, think this is the date when milk or other perishables expire. And it adds up—collectively we discard billions of pounds of perfectly edible food annually in the U.S.

In some states, it’s even illegal to sell or donate food that has passed its “best by” or “sell by” date. A new short documentary released Friday by Harvard’s Food Law & Policy Clinic and Racing Horse Productions exhibits the fallout of one state’s illogical rule, which is based almost entirely on the false premise that dates on labels are related to food safety. Montana laws prohibits milk from being sold or donated more than 12 days after pasteurization—leading to the destruction of perfectly drinkable cartons.

To replace the “dizzying variety of date labeling laws that aren’t based in science or sound public policy,” the Food Law & Policy Clinic is pushing for a federal standard for sell-by dates. (Check out the FLPC’s 2013 report, “The Dating Game,” for more information about their proposals.) Until we have a commonsense federal standard, how will we know when the milk is too far gone? Here are some tips:

  • Milk that has passed its expiration date usually tastes perfectly fine. It’s important to remember that milk should maintain its freshness 21 to 24 days after pasteurization, and some say it can even go another week after that.
  • Even milk that has spoiled has been pasteurized. That means it can’t make you sick, as gross as it sounds.
  • Trust your senses, not labels. You’ll obviously want to toss anything that looks or smells rotten.

What else can we do besides educating ourselves and committing to consume foods at home beyond the date on the label? According to the FLPC, we can spread the word that these dates do not necessarily correlate with food safety. We can also ask your local supermarket what it’s doing about food waste, and where it’s donating foods that have passed their sell-by dates. Finally, we can join the FLPC in advocating for a commonsense federal labeling standard that is based on science—not fear.

Photo credit: liz west via Flickr

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Steve Holt

Steve Holt's stories about food, nutrition and food politics are found at Civil Eats,, Boston Magazine, and elsewhere. He's been featured in the Best Food Writing anthology. Follow his tweets and Instagrams @thebostonwriter.

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