FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) - What started as a tip from a local Walmart customer concerned about milk spoiling before the expiration date has become the most viewed story on wane.com. Dozens of Walmart shoppers in states across the country have contacted WANE 15 with the same complaint.
When shopping for milk or other food products, one of the first places customers check is the date on the package. The phrasing may vary from "use by," to "sell by," or even "best by." While many consumers put their faith in those dates,15 Finds Out has learned that the dates printed are not federally regulated. In fact, they're not even required to be printed on any product except baby formula.
Andrea Spacht is a Sustainable Food Systems Specialist at Natural Resources Defense Council.
"We think that something is telling us don't eat this food after this amount of time," she said. "But that's really not what the date is telling us at all."
According to Spacht, the date is simply an estimate of when the product will be at its peak quality. Food scientists at processing plants determine that date before the product is shipped to retailers. The method for determining the product's peak quality varies which can create confusion surrounding the dates.
As a result the product could go bad before the expected expiration or it is thrown out too soon because customers fear that the product is not safe to eat.
"Some states do have requirements about the specifics of how long that date needs to be from when the cow was milked or when it was processed," said Spacht. "But for Indiana that's not the case and for many states around the country there's no regulation around what date goes on to products."
In August, we introduced you to a local woman who told WANE 15 that three cartons of milk purchased from Walmart over the course of a month went bad before the expiration date.
The story generated more than 750,000 page views and complaints to WANE 15 about Walmart milk spoiling from customers in more than a dozen different states.
Molly Blakeman, a spokesperson for Walmart, said there is an average of two complaints for every one million gallons of Great Value milk sold in stores. She said the company is committed to providing quality products and does not believe the incidents are connected.
Blakeman declined an on camera interview, however she issued the following statement:
"It's important to note that different suppliers provide milk under the Great Value brand using multiple different plants across the country. A few hundred stores in Indiana and surrounding states carry milk from the processing plant there in Ft. Wayne, so it is very unlikely that these comments are connected."
The Indiana State Board of Animal Health is responsible for inspecting dairy farms, processing plants and tanker trucks that haul milk.
"We have received some complaints about fluid milk products that are going to Walmart stores that have been processed at the new Fort Wayne plant," said Denise Derrer, a spokesperson for the State Board of Animal Health. "But we have not found any food safety issues with those."
Research shows contamination after processing accounts for about 50 percent of spoiled milk. This can happen when the milk is not stored at proper temperature which allows bacteria to grow rapidly causing defects.
Nicole Martin, Associate Director of the Milk Quality Improvement Program at Cornell University, said that type of spoilage typically happens after milk leaves the processing plant. According to Martin, it could be a result of improper storage when the milk is transported, refrigeration problems at a store or once a consumer takes the product home.
"When we see milk that's coagulating, smelling bad, or tasting bad well before the date that's stamped on the carton, my suspicion would be that it's due to post processing contamination," she said.
The Natural Resources Defense Council is pushing for the standardization of expiration dates and regulation by the federal government. Spacht believes this would hold milk processors and retailers accountable and keep consumers informed.
"If a date is really just a quality date there are a standardized set of words that go along with that date so people understand that," she said. "And If there is increased safety risk with eating food beyond a certain amount of time that has a different phrase that goes along with it."