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SYLVIE DOUGLIS, BYLINE: This is PLANET MONEY from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF COIN SPINNING)

SARAH GONZALEZ, HOST:

In the grocery world, there are certain store items that are always tricky to sell before it's too late.

CORY THOMPSON: I have probably the red meat.

GONZALEZ: And that's, like, because there's expiration dates on red meat and...

THOMPSON: Yeah. Well - and it starts turning colors. And there's a date and the color.

GONZALEZ: Yeah, the meat color, you know, when the meat starts to turn a little gray.

THOMPSON: And there's not much you can do with that. Like, the people don't buy it.

GONZALEZ: This is Cory Thompson. He started working as a box boy when he was in high school. Then 16 years later, he bought the store, called it Cory's Valley Market. It's in Seeley Lake, Mont. For Cory, trying to fight the meat color clock is one of the most painful parts of being a store owner.

THOMPSON: Sometimes, if we catch it soon enough, we can mark it down a little bit, try to sell it. But yeah, some of it just goes in the garbage. Yeah, it sucks.

GONZALEZ: This is what's called shrink in the grocery world. It's the amount of food that comes in the door that doesn't get sold. It's just thrown in the trash or people steal it. At any store, there is always an expected amount of shrink, especially because everything in a grocery store has some sort of date on it that causes food to get thrown out. And sometimes, throwing out food makes sense, like with bad gray meat, but sometimes it really doesn't.

THOMPSON: Because even water has an expiration date. And I can see, like, maybe the plastic in bottles breaking down or something at some point, but...

GONZALEZ: Water - apparently only good for two years. Now, if you look at the date printed on any product in any state, you can find a weird backstory. In Montana, that product is milk. Milk in Montana, the state has determined, should be the freshest milk in the whole country; so fresh that the state forces stores to throw good milk in the shrink pile, like, actually take it off their shelves a lot earlier than they need to, a lot earlier than other states. In Montana, milk has to be sold within 12 days of it being pasteurized. The modern industry standard for milk, according to food date experts and even Montana, is 21 to 24 days after pasteurization. So Cory has half as long to sell milk.

Let's go to the milk aisle. Let's look at the milk. Now, show me - what am I looking at?

THOMPSON: So, you know, 6/26, 6/26.

GONZALEZ: Cory's checking to see if any of his milk has reached its sell-by date. Like, OK, this one says 6/26, June 26. That's fine. Today's only 6/21.

THOMPSON: So those are all good. Can you just check on those - 6/28, 7/04. These are dated tomorrow. That's today, right? Yeah. That's today.

GONZALEZ: That's today.

THOMPSON: So we should pull those.

GONZALEZ: Cory grabs all the cartons with today's date except one. Maybe someone will still buy it. And he walks to the back where the mops and the trash cans are.

UNIDENTIFIED EMPLOYEE: Refund on two, please, refund on two.

GONZALEZ: It smells like cantaloupe back here. So we pulled the milk.

THOMPSON: We just throw them right in the garbage can. Like, literally just, that's it.

GONZALEZ: Just the whole, full, unopened carton, straight in the garbage. And if these exact milk cartons, the same brand and everything, were being sold in Idaho just next door, they would not have to be thrown in the garbage. They could stay on the shelf, have a chance of being purchased for nine whole more days. In Oregon, for 11 more days.

Can I just taste it?

THOMPSON: Yeah.

GONZALEZ: All right. Let me just taste it. I'm just going to pull it out of the garbage here. And what are you doing? You're going to open it for me? Oh, thank you. I mean, it's like perfectly fine milk.

THOMPSON: Right.

GONZALEZ: It's not expired milk, not even close, but it doesn't matter. In Montana, a sell-by date is a throw-away-by date or a pour-down-the-drain date.

THOMPSON: You just - that looks - I mean, it's fine.

GONZALEZ: Oh, like, does it hurt you, like, a little bit?

THOMPSON: Well, it sucks, but...

GONZALEZ: But you can't sell it.

THOMPSON: Right.

GONZALEZ: Like, you're not allowed to sell. This is not like you're, like, choosing to do this, right?

THOMPSON: Right.

GONZALEZ: Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Sarah Gonzalez. Sell by, best by, harvested on, born on, bottled on - all the dates printed on all our food, we may be taking them more seriously than we should. Most food doesn't have to have a date on it. Food makers just choose to stamp one on. I wonder why'd they do that.

(SOUNDBITE OF ADELE ROBERTS' "SHOW ME THE WAY")

GONZALEZ: Today on the show, where these dates come from and how they've kind of been hijacked, also the one simple rule that will make you rethink these dates forever.

(SOUNDBITE OF ADELE ROBERTS' "SHOW ME THE WAY")

LINDSAY ADDINGTON: OK.

GONZALEZ: OK. The date on the milk, what does that mean to you?

ADDINGTON: That means it's no longer fresh after that date.

GONZALEZ: This is Lindsay Addington (ph) looking at milk dates in Montana.

ADDINGTON: I don't use it after that date.

GONZALEZ: Why?

ADDINGTON: Because that's the expiration date (laughter).

GONZALEZ: So if you look closely, it actually says sell by.

ADDINGTON: I know.

GONZALEZ: But it doesn't say expires on.

ADDINGTON: So how much longer is it good?

ADDINGTON: Yeah.

Food dates confuse consumers. We don't really know what they mean. And it has led to a lot of unnecessary food waste, not just because grocery stores can't sell, in this case, milk after it hits its sell-by date, but even us as consumers, we rummage in the bag for the freshest food date, and we leave a bunch of good milk on the shelf that no one ever buys. And even after we bring food home, when we see one of these dates, enjoy-by, eat-by, on our dried pasta, our orange juice, tortillas, we go, oh, it's no longer good. I should toss it out.

EMILY BROAD LEIB: Eighty-six percent of consumers report that they either always or usually throw food away based on the date.

BROAD LEIB: Eighty-six percent - that's, like, the entire country.

BROAD LEIB: Yeah.

GONZALEZ: This is the opposite of what I do - I mean, like, we eat some pretty questionable food in my house.

Emily Broad Leib is a food expiration date and food law expert, started the Food Law and Policy Clinic at Harvard Law School. She says that of all the food waste that happens in the U.S. - at the farm level, the manufacturing level, at grocery stores - about 40% of it happens at the home.

BROAD LEIB: So it's - you know, let's say you - you know, you're going to the grocery store once a week. Every single time you come out and you buy three bags of groceries, and you just walk to the trash can and put one of them in the trash.

GONZALEZ: The U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration, Emily at the Harvard Food Law Clinic, they all say that consumer uncertainty about the meaning of food dates is a part of the food waste problem.

Let's go through all the different kinds of best-by, use-by. Just, like, list them for us.

BROAD LEIB: So best by, use by, sell by, expires on, best if used by, best before, packaged on.

GONZALEZ: Oh, packaged on.

BROAD LEIB: It's like, what are you supposed to do with that information as a consumer?

GONZALEZ: Once, Walmart actually counted up how many different phrases there were for dates just on Walmart-brand products. They found 47.

Do manufacturers like that we have all these dates, that we look at these dates and we go, I think that means I should throw it away, so that we then buy more of that thing?

BROAD LEIB: The - you know, well, they definitely want us to buy more. But I think manufacturers would say that there's a benign explanation for why they like using dates, and it's that they are really wanting to protect their brand. They want to make sure that people eat food when it tastes its best.

GONZALEZ: So how did all these different phrases end up on all our food? Emily says it happened when we started to move further and further away from where our food came from.

BROAD LEIB: You know, you think of, like, post-World War II, 1950s, everyone started to buy a refrigerator and go to a grocery store.

GONZALEZ: Once we start getting most of our food at grocery stores instead of at farms, we start to go like, somebody tell me, how long is this bread even good for?

BROAD LEIB: So people suddenly are really wanting some information about, you know, when is this food from? How old is it? When did it - when was it produced? Is it still going to be tasty and fresh?

GONZALEZ: Once upon a time, stores mainly had what's called closed dating. A bottle of orange juice would have some code on it, like 940532 or something, and that code meant something to the store about where that orange juice came from or when. But to the consumer, it meant nothing. And by the 1970s, consumers start asking for open dating. Like, put that code in a format that means something to me, you know, like month, day, year, open dating. Within a few years, 95% of consumers are saying open dating is like the most useful thing ever. And then states, they started to require date labels on food. But which foods got a date requirement was actually pretty random. Emily says she's talked to lawmakers who got food date laws passed in their states.

BROAD LEIB: And often it was like, I went to the store, I bought some, you know, hot dog buns and I brought them home and they were stale. And then I looked into it and I realized that our state doesn't require date labels on these products. And so I introduced a bill and everyone said, of course we should have date labels on products. And then it got passed.

GONZALEZ: And in some states, you're not even allowed to donate food past the date, even when the date is just, like, enjoy-by. Food date rules are all over the place now.

BROAD LEIB: One state requires date labels on milk, and another requires them on eggs, and a third state requires them only on cream.

GONZALEZ: Some states don't require any food to have any kind of date at all, like New York.

BROAD LEIB: If we think the labels are based in science or in food safety, states would have the same or very similar laws. The fact that state laws vary so widely, I think, is evidence of the fact that this isn't really based in safety.

GONZALEZ: The federal government doesn't actually require dates on any food except baby formula. Emily says the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has actually said, we're not setting food standards because these dates are not about safety.

BROAD LEIB: You know, they're not communicating that, necessarily, as clearly as possible to consumers. But they've said, you know, if we thought this was a safety-related measure, we would actually have standard requirements.

GONZALEZ: Emily says sometimes dates do matter but on, like, 1% of the food in stores. She says, you do want to pay attention to the dates on things that are in the prepared food section, like egg salad, deli meat, also unpasteurized milk and cheese, raw fish, think things we tell pregnant people not to eat. For everything else, Emily has one simple rule.

BROAD LEIB: Take a pause. Look at the food. Smell it, taste it. You would know. You would, you know, be able to smell. Or if you took a tiny sip and the milk tasted bad, it would be apparent.

GONZALEZ: The smell test or the taste test. That's it. That's the rule. Just use your senses. Except sometimes the government literally doesn't let you.

BROAD LEIB: Yeah, so that's why I pick on Montana.

GONZALEZ: After the break, how Montana got arguably the strictest food date of all.

(SOUNDBITE OF ADELE ROBERTS' "LIGHT THE FIRE UP")

GONZALEZ: Montana has what is called milk control. Their job is enforcement of the 12-day milk rule, like, with surprise visits to stores. Milk control is under the Montana Department of Livestock. Mike Honeycutt is the head of the department.

Do you ever drink milk past the 12-day sell-by date?

MIKE HONEYCUTT: Yes. I mean, obviously, we're not saying it's going to be unsafe. No, I mean, the intent of it is about freshness and quality for the consumer.

GONZALEZ: When you leave Montana, do you think the milk everywhere else doesn't taste as good? Like, for real, do you notice a difference?

HONEYCUTT: Well, I mean, if it gets to 24, 25, 26 days, you do - you will notice a difference. Yes.

GONZALEZ: Mike says this 12-day rule originally was about milk freshness when the rule was written back in the 1980s. People thought that after milk was pasteurized using 1980s pasteurization and processing technology, it was only good for 12-ish days. And even though pasteurization technology is much better now, the 12-day sell-by rule is still in place, and it has helped to prop up the dairy industry in Montana in a couple ways. First, because grocery stores cannot sell milk after this really strict sell-by date and shoppers are throwing away perfectly good milk when it hits this date, everyone buys more milk and more often. The rule creates demand, a little bit - right? - which is good for the milk makers.

How many dairy farmers are there in Montana?

HONEYCUTT: Roughly between 45 and 50 at the present time.

GONZALEZ: Like, 45 to 50 people?

HONEYCUTT: Forty-five to 50 dairies, yes.

GONZALEZ: OK, so it's, like, 100 people?

Yeah. This milk rule imposed on the entire state really benefits the just 45 dairies and the two big milk processors in the state.

This, even if it wasn't the intention, is basically a subsidy for these 45 to 50 dairies for, like, this very small group of people.

HONEYCUTT: I don't know that - I think subsidy would actually be too strong a word.

GONZALEZ: Kind of. I mean, it's, like, kind of a subsidy. Surely you can see that, right?

HONEYCUTT: Well, I can see that. Yes, that does create a benefit for the producer and for the industry in Montana, but I don't think that's the initial intent and consequence for which this rule was designed.

GONZALEZ: All right. So normally, subsidies in agriculture are, like, price supports for crops or, say, crop insurance for farmers. But here, food dates are being used as kind of like a sneaky subsidy - you know, like a little creative assist to the industry, totally unintentionally. And this food date rule has led to another big win for the industry. Milk makers from outside the state, they don't really sell milk in Montana. It doesn't make sense to.

HONEYCUTT: Let's say if you wanted to supply milk to Montana from Texas, there would be logistical issues being able to get the milk here from the time it's pasteurized at the processor and be able to have, you know, any time on the shelf to be sold before the 12 days.

GONZALEZ: Because if you are an out-of-state milk producer, by the time you travel from Texas to Montana to sell your milk in Montana, you actually have, like, one or two days left to sell this milk.

HONEYCUTT: Yeah, precisely.

GONZALEZ: The milk would be so close to its fake, based-on-technology-from-the-'80s sell-by date that it wouldn't make sense for a store to stock out-of-state milk. They'd only have a few days to sell it. So Montana milk has this huge home court advantage. They face no real outside competition. It's a little bit of a trade barrier, a technical trade barrier.

HONEYCUTT: Obviously, I would think out-of-state processors would like to see us change this rule because that extra seven days now allows them to come in and take that market share.

GONZALEZ: Right now, Mike says almost 100% of milk in Montana comes from Montana - Montana cows, Montana processing plants. And without this 12-day rule, you can kind of envision the whole industry collapsing. Montana only has a million people. And the two big milk processors - if out-of-state milk came in, those processors would lose market share and maybe close up shop. And that would mean that the 45-ish dairy farmers in the state, which are pretty small, might not have someone to sell their milk to. In the past six years, the state has already lost about half its dairy. So it is not a robust industry. But limiting the supply of milk and restricting competition is also not great for consumers.

If this 12-day sell-by date went away, that would potentially open up Montana to out-of-state milk. Now there's more people competing to sell their milk in Montana. Wouldn't that drive down milk prices?

HONEYCUTT: Maybe so, but there are other forces, such as transportation costs, time, you know, other things that they have to factor in because you would be bringing that milk from farther away, which more supply typically would drive down prices. But that's not the only factor.

GONZALEZ: Sure. Yeah. Maybe a lot of economic factors go into the price of milk, but Mike has heard the argument that milk in Montana is more expensive than it is next door in Idaho. He just thinks it's an unfair comparison.

HONEYCUTT: Idaho's dairy industry, they have a great - a much greater supply of milk in Idaho than we have in Montana.

GONZALEZ: So for Idaho, more supply does lower prices. Interesting.

GREG HERTZ: The agriculture industry - and God bless them because they've seen this - but it's indirectly raising the cost of milk for everybody, too.

GONZALEZ: This is Greg Hertz. He owns one grocery store in Idaho and five in Montana, and he says grocery stores aren't really the ones who pay for the 12-day rule, right? Like, if milk doesn't get sold, he just passes that cost on to the consumer. In his Montana stores, milk is about $0.30 more than in his Idaho store. And Greg says there was a time when the 12-day milk rule made more sense for everyone, a time when it didn't mean grocery stores had to throw away gallons and gallons of milk. Back in the 2000s-ish (ph), when a milk or dairy manufacturer would go to one of Greg's stores to drop off a new milk and cheese and butter delivery, someone at Greg's store would be like, all right, we got 17 jugs of milk that hit their sell-by date, and the dairy manufacturer would just take that milk back.

HERTZ: Oh, yeah, we'll take it back and we'll trade you out for some new milk.

GONZALEZ: It hit its sell-by date. Let's just - we'll just swap it for you?

HERTZ: Right.

GONZALEZ: They would swap out this milk at no cost to the store, and the reason it made sense to do this was because the dairy manufacturer could take that milk back to their processing plant and turn it into some other kind of dairy product.

HERTZ: Yeah, you know, like, maybe cheese, yogurt. I mean, it's perfectly fine milk at 12 days, and they could reprocess it.

GONZALEZ: There were two big dairy processors in the state that would take back the milk and turn it into something else, like cottage cheeses and sour cream and ice cream because, again, this was not expired or bad milk. It was totally usable, perfectly fine milk. But then the two big dairy processors in the state stopped making cottage cheeses and sour cream and ice cream.

HERTZ: They just got rid of it all.

GONZALEZ: It was cheaper to bring those products in from other states. None of those dairy products have the 12-day rule, by the way. Now, Montana pretty much only makes what dairy people call fluid milk. And that change, that was when dairy processors stopped taking back Greg's old but perfectly fine milk.

HERTZ: That dated milk after 12 days had no use for them. So they just decided, hey, Mr. Retailer, if you can't sell it, then sorry, it's your loss. They wouldn't even let us just have a half-off sale. The state law said you can't sell milk after 12 days or, God forbid, give it to somebody.

GONZALEZ: Yeah. Greg says he couldn't donate the milk either.

HERTZ: You could donate the milk, but it was in violation of state law.

GONZALEZ: OK, so you couldn't, then.

HERTZ: Right.

GONZALEZ: But am I - I'm picking up that you did anyway.

HERTZ: Yeah.

GONZALEZ: Greg Hertz was like, come on, this is ridiculous. And this is when he set out to change Montana's 12-day sell-by rule because Greg is also a state lawmaker in Montana, Republican. And he thought grocery stores shouldn't have to make this choice between breaking some state rules, maybe, and throwing away perfectly fine milk. Plus, you know, it was kind of an annoying rule.

HERTZ: So once I became an elected legislator, a lot of my grocery friends - oh, Hertz is a legislator now. Maybe he can attempt to change the law when it comes to fluid milk.

GONZALEZ: He's introduced a bill to end the 12-day rule every session since 2015. It gets shot down right away. And Greg Hertz says he has some respect from his colleagues. He was speaker of the House in 2019. They like him.

HERTZ: But it's like, Hertz, on this milk thing, we're not backing you. We'll back you on some other stuff, but leave our dairy farmers alone.

GONZALEZ: Greg says a lot of lawmakers in Montana are in the ag business themselves, raising livestock, growing wheat, potatoes.

And they're looking out for their dairy farmer friends.

HERTZ: Yeah, I don't hold that against them.

GONZALEZ: It's like you were looking out for your grocery friends.

HERTZ: That's right and the consumer.

GONZALEZ: Last winter, Greg did get a big milk package through in Montana, though. The 12-day rule is still in place, but now, restaurants are allowed to use milk past the sell-by date. Before, they had to throw it away, even though they bought it before the sell-by date. And now, also, the Department of Livestock has clarified that you can actually donate milk past the sell-by date, too. It doesn't have to go in the trash. But donating milk isn't always an option. Like, for Cory Thompson, the grocery store owner who poured the milk down the drain, there's only one food bank in his town.

THOMPSON: And, like, our food bank here is awful small. They don't have a refrigerator, so they don't do milk at the food bank.

GONZALEZ: So even if you wanted to donate this milk that we just threw down the drain...

THOMPSON: Yeah. They don't have anywhere to keep it or anything.

GONZALEZ: There is actually a lot of consensus about what to do about these dates that lead to a lot of food waste. The people who make food, grocery stores, consumers, food experts, the big federal food agencies, they say that having just two phrases stamped on all of the food in the country would prevent a lot of confusion. Those phrases - best if used by and used by. Best if used by would tell consumers this mayonnaise would be best and tastiest if you used it by this date, but you could still eat it after this date. Used by tells consumers, after this date, you probably don't want to eat that mayo.

All right. When I left Cory's market, Cory had left one small carton of milk on the shelf with today's date, hoping someone would still buy it. And I honestly could not stop thinking about this fricking carton. So a few hours later, I decided to go back to rescue this milk.

I'm back. All right. There was one carton of milk here that's OK. Oh, but there's a bunch - 6/21, 6/21. One, two, three four - there's, like, eight. All right. I wonder if I can get someone to buy some of this milk.

Today's show was engineered by Margaret Luthar and produced by James Sneed, who used to be a PLANET MONEY intern. And we are looking for our next PLANET MONEY intern. You should apply at n.pr/pmintern.

You know, this milk has to get sold by today, in case you want to salvage, save a quart.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Oh.

GONZALEZ: Because otherwise it just gets thrown away.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: It's 1% though.

GONZALEZ: Oh, it's 1%. You don't do the 1%?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: No.

GONZALEZ: No. OK.

This episode was edited by Jess Jiang. Alex Goldmark is our executive producer. Special thanks to Feeding San Diego. They do a whole lot of rescuing food from grocery stores.

You're saving one.

ULY ANDERSON: I am saving one.

GONZALEZ: Would you say your name for me?

ANDERSON: Uly (ph).

GONZALEZ: Uly? And your last name?

ANDERSON: Anderson.

GONZALEZ: Anderson. Thank you so much.

I'm Sarah Gonzalez. This is NPR. Thanks for listening.

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