At some point in their lives, most people have looked dubiously at the last milk in a carton and wondered whether it could still be good to drink. A printed expiration date that matches the current date can add to the confusion. Although determining expiration dates can be complicated, the simple summary is that it is usually safe to drink milk that expires on the same day.
Dangers of Spoiled Milk
Pasteurized milk is treated to eliminate the major bacterial threats. However, even pasteurized milk gradually begins to develop bacterial growth over time. The bacteria found in spoiled milk can cause nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. Children, the elderly and people with weakened immune systems are especially at risk from these bacteria. The Food and Drug Administration warns that drinking unpasteurized or "raw" milk can carry serious health risks.
Types of Date
One of the reasons many people find food expiration dates confusing is that there is no single standard for dating. Apart from baby food, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration doesn't mandate date labels for most foods. Different types of food, different states and different retailers therefore have different labeling practices. According to the University of Nevada, "Sell By" dates are common on milk products. These dates indicate how long a store should keep the product on its shelves, allowing consumers time to take it home and consume it.
Milk should be safe to drink for several days after the sell-by date on the packaging has passed. The National Dairy Council states that milk will keep for two to three days following the sell-by date. The U.S. Department of Agriculture similarly says that most food expiration dates refer to food quality rather than safety. The length of time a milk container has been open also plays a role. The South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control advises that milk will stay safe in the refrigerator for a week.
There are no hard and fast rules about milk safety and expiration dates. This is because the storage conditions of milk can vary greatly once the product is out of the store. If milk is refrigerated quickly after purchase and kept cold, it should last well beyond its sell-by date. If the refrigerator is not cold, however, or if it isn't promptly refrigerated, it may spoil even before its expiration date. As a result, the printed date is only an indicator of the milk's quality, not a completely reliable guide.
- Hart District Council: Food Poisoning Information
- Food and Drug Administration: The Dangers of Raw Milk -- Unpasteurized Milk Can Pose a Serious Health Risk
- Consumer Affairs: Nothing Simple About Food Dating, Expiration Dates or 'Use-By' Dates
- University of Nevada Cooperative Extension: Food Product Dating
- National Dairy Council: Dairy Food Safety From Farm to Fridge -- An Overview
- US Department of Agriculture: Food Product Dating
- South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control: Food Safety for Home Cooks
- Photo Credit Ryan McVay/Photodisc/Getty Images