New York City's Milk Mystery

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Photo by Paul Wachter

What's wrong with the milk in New York City? This is a question I ask myself every time I buy milk in a store and scrutinize the expiration date. Dates, I should say. Because every milk container sold in the city bears two: the manufacturer's suggested sell-by date and an additional one, marked "NYC," which typically is five days earlier. According to the International Dairy Foods Association, New York City is the only city in the country that mandates an additional sell-by date. Now, the corrupting tendencies of this metropolis are well-documented, but what is it about Gotham exactly that spoils milk?

In 1998, John Gadd, a spokesman for the city's Health Department explained the code to the New York Times as "one of those uniquely New York sorts of things." He said that milk shipped to the city is more likely to stand unrefrigerated for longer periods before it reaches stores and also during the trip from store to home. "In other parts of the country, the expiration date is often 11 or 12 days after the pasteurization, but our experience and research have shown that here, 9 days is a reasonable threshold," Gadd said.

The city hired its first milk inspector in the 1870s, but the origins of this particular code date back to 1959, when the Health Department mandated milk have an expiration date of no longer than 54 hours after distribution. Since then, the code has been modified several times. For many years, milk could only be sold in New York City up to four days after pasteurization. In 1987, the period was extended to nine days. This remains the current standard for "milk, low sodium-milk, low fat milk, skimmed milk, modified skimmed milk, cream or half and half," according to the city code. (Ultra-pasteurized products have a longer shelf life and are treated differently.)

I've noticed that here in New York my milk does seem to go sour more quickly than in other parts of the country.

In recent years, there's been no indication the Health Department has re-thought its policy. I made several calls to the department, and each time spokespeople referred me to either the New York state Department of Agriculture or the city's Department of Consumer Affairs--neither of which has anything to do with the regulation. Only after a final, pre-publication e-mail did the Health Department provide me with a copy of the relevant code.

Meanwhile, the additional sell-by date remains a sore point for producers. "The law makes no sense," says Cyrus Schwartz, vice president of Elmhurst Dairy, which operates the city's only dairy. Schwartz believes that dairy manufacturers should be left to determine when their products expire--as is the case with orange juice, potato chips, and other food items. "Consumers choose with their wallets, and they're not going to buy from companies that claim their milk lasts longer than it does." There's no health issue at stake, he adds. "If the milk's been properly pasteurized, pathogens, including e. coli, that may have been in the milk are gone. Even if you drink sour milk, it's not going to hurt you." (In fact, pasteurization doesn't kill all pathogens, but reduces them to the point where they are unlikely to cause disease. State agencies and the FDA inspect dairies to ensure safety standards.)

Manufacturers perform their own stress tests on milk to determine appropriate expiration dates, which range from 15 to 21 days after pasteurization. Six states--Connecticut, Florida, Maryland, Montana, New Mexico and Pennsylvania--mandate earlier expiration dates. But only Maryland has an earlier one than New York City's--seven days after pasteurization (though if producers meet additional requirements, the expiration date can be extended to 12 days).

The logistics of delivering milk in the city are not significantly different than in other areas of the state, Schwartz says. "It doesn't make any difference whether you're pulling up to the sidewalk or a loading dock, if the temperature is 100 degrees." 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, he says. "And if that's the case, it's not as if milk is the only product that suffers."

The shorter shelf life drives costs up that are passed onto consumers. "When you buy milk, you look at the date, and you're not going to buy one with only a day or two left before the expiration stamp, even if it's still fine," Schwartz says. "A lot of milk in New York is tossed even though it's still good, which drives up the price."

Personally, I'm sympathetic to producers like Schwartz and my favorite local organic purveyor, the Hudson Valley's Ronnybrook Farm, whose spokesperson declared New York City's policy a "pain in the butt." But at the same time, I've noticed that here in New York my milk does seem to go sour more quickly than in other parts of the country. When I was growing up in South Carolina, my family would buy milk by the gallon, which would keep for well over a week. Now, I buy milk by the quart and if it's good after four days I'm happy.

I said as much to Schwartz. "You're probably not remembering correctly," he says. "If you're talking about a family, there likely was greater turnover." He may be right. As a child, I poured myself full glasses of milk and snuck gulps from the jug. Now, I only use it for my tea, and occasionally my milk goes sour. Gluttony or abstention may be the only answers.

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Paul Wachter is a writer based in New York and the co-founder of AgainstDumb.com. He has written for The New York Times MagazineThe Nation, and Eight by Eight.

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