(Farm and Dairy) – An antiquated regulation on milk freshness labeling is holding back the Pennsylvania dairy industry, state lawmakers say.
Right now, milk processed in Pennsylvania must be labeled with a “sell by” date of 17 days from the date of pasteurization. Pennsylvania is one of only two states that has a fixed code for its milk labeling.
Sen. Elder Vogel, R-New Sewickley Township, introduced Senate Bill 434 to allow processors to apply with the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture to exceed the 17-day code.
The legislation would set up testing requirements and standards, including dairy laboratory criteria, bacterial testing of samples and continued periodic testing, to go past the 17-day sell-by label.
Approved processors could use the language “best if used by” and a date that exceeds 17 days after pasteurization then. It seems like a small change, but it could have big impacts for consumers, farmers and processors.
“I really fear that there’s way too many consumers who look at the date on the container and think they need to throw that milk out after the date has passed, and that’s not necessarily the case,” said Sen. Judy Schwank, D-Berks, a co-sponsor on the bill, when it was introduced to the committee on March 23.
“We could extend the shelf life of milk,” she said. “We could reduce food waste, and I think it gives consumers confidence to buy more milk. That’s good for farmers.”
The lowdown on food labeling
There is no universal rule on how long a food item is good for. Most of those expiration-date type labels on food are arbitrary. The only thing regulated federally with product dating is infant formula.
Even worse, milk date labels contribute to food waste, according to researchers. A 2018 study by Ohio State University College of Food, Agricultural and Environmental Sciences researchers found that a majority of respondents in the study said they would throw milk out that had a date label, regardless of whether it passed a sniff-test or not.
Another study by Saint Joseph’s School of Food Marketing found that consumers rank freshness, as determined by the date code indicated, as the most important attribute when purchasing milk.
Brian Roe, one of the Ohio State researchers, said in a press release that date labeling doesn’t tell you when food will spoil. Milk is one of the most wanted food products in the U.S., Roe said.
“Consumers often view dates as if they indicated health or safety, but those dates are really just about the quality of a product determined by manufacturers,” he said. “There’s a difference between quality and safety.”
Similar legislation was introduced during the last legislative session. Extending the 17-day code for milk was one of the 54 recommendations laid out by the Pennsylvania Dairy Futures Commission as ways to boost the state’s dairy industry.
Going past the 17-day code will allow milk to be shipped further distances than it is now, said Jayne Sebright, executive director for Pennsylvania’s Center for Dairy Excellence. It would allow Pennsylvania milk processors to be competitive with processors in other states. New markets might open up for processors, who could sell to more national suppliers or distributors.
“Our milk has a shorter shelf life,” Sebight said. “It can’t stay on the shelf as long because of that code on the label, not because it’s any different physically.”
The change would also reflect the change in quality of milk produced these days. Somatic cell counts in cows have gone down significantly in Pennsylvania dairy cattle.
“Thirty or 40 years ago, you didn’t see a somatic cell count that low,” Sebright said. “That’s a measurement of quality. Milk that is produced with higher quality standards will stay fresh, keep longer than what it would have years ago,” she said.