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If you have been pouring out milk because it has passed the date stamped on the carton, you may have been wasting perfectly good milk – and probably paying more for it, too.

That is because each container of milk stocked in Montana stores is required to have a “sell-by” date, unlike many other states that require a “use-by” date. The difference? A sell-by date indicates the last day milk should be sold by a store. Milk stored at home at a temperature between 34 and 40 degrees should last about a week past the sell-by date, if opened. If left unopened, it should last a few days longer.

Clearly, sell-by dates require a bit of guesswork on the part of the consumer. A use-by date, on the other hand, indicates the last day milk should be consumed – period. It’s a whole lot simpler for the average milk drinker, but you won’t see this kind of date on most milk sold in Montana.

What you will see is higher prices. Stores that are forced to throw away still-good milk because it has passed its sell-by date not only end up wasting more milk, they have to pass the cost of the thrown-away milk onto their customers.

But now, a major food distributor in Montana as well as a number of grocery and convenience store owners are asking the state Board of Livestock to do away with the current dating system and let individual producers set their own dates.

This is an ongoing request – and an ongoing battle. Nearly two years ago, the Montana Department of Livestock cracked down on stores selling milk with two date stamps on it – one a use-by date and the other a sell-by date – and ordered the stores to stock only milk with one date stamp. What’s more, the state reminded retailers that they were not allowed to remove or alter any date stamp. This effectively banned milk from out-of-state.

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It’s one thing to “buy local.” Most consumers of milk products in Montana probably prefer to buy from nearby or in-state dairy farmers. In fact, Montana’s milk producers have a distinct advantage in that a lot of Montanans want to support them. They may even be willing to pay more to do it.

But they shouldn’t be forced to.

The simplest solution for everyone would be for the Board of Livestock to drop its sell-by date requirement and replace it with a reasonable use-by date requirement.

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