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Could Giving Milk a Longer Shelf Life Reduce Food Waste?

The dairy industry has seen its fair share of disruptors. Now, an Australian food company has made fresh milk that can last for 60 days.
Gallons of milk on shelves in a grocery store

Research shows that Americans throw out products like milk based on sell-by dates, even if they're still safe to consume.

An Australian food technology firm claims to have developed a process extending fresh milk's shelf life from two weeks to more than 60 days. It is, the company promised this month, "the biggest breakthrough in the global milk industry since pasteurization in 1864."

Naturo's founder and chief executive officer, Jeff Hastings, said this technology kills pathogens in milk without heating it—what he calls "a far more gentle and minimal processing technique," according to a report from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. The company's website claims the product can be exported to remote markets by ship, a cheaper mode of transport that would be infeasible with traditionally pasteurized milk.

Since Louis Pasteur's discovery, the dairy industry has seen its fair share of disruptors offering new products and processes. Their acolytes have promised to end global warming, cut back on food waste, and reach rural consumers, whose access to milk is limited. Could extending milk's lifespan address some of these issues?

The World Wastes a Lot of Milk

Naturo is targeting markets in China, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia, according to ABC—places where there's a high demand for milk. Meanwhile, the United States has the opposite problem: In addition to the country's huge dairy surplus, consumers frequently discard the milk they buy. In fact, milk is one of the most-wasted food products in the U.S., making up 12 percent of food waste.

Research shows the country's sell-by and best-by dates encourage consumers to throw out food, even though they have no bearing on food safety. A 2018 study found the majority of consumers are likely to discard milk based on the date on the carton, regardless of whether it's spoiled. As Pacific Standard has reported, we're paying dearly for this waste in water use and greenhouse gas emissions.

U.S. consumer advocates have explored legislative fixes for this, including efforts to strike down states' arbitrary sell-by date laws, which force milk off the shelves after 12 days and cost retailers thousands in wasted milk per year, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Extending Milk's Shelf Life

Innovations in milk processing could help as well. The typical process of pasteurization involves heating and rapidly cooling milk using metal plates and hot water. Over the years, scientists have improved this process by tinkering with the temperature and length of time. In 2016, researchers developed a method to extend fresh milk's shelf life to up to seven weeks, using a lower temperature for a shorter amount of time. University of Tennessee professor Phillip Myer, who co-authored the paper about this new process, said the technology could reduce waste and reach distant markets, according to a Purdue University report.

There's also a process known as ultrahigh temperature, or UHT, that produces milk that can last up to six months, unrefrigerated. But while many Europeans drink the room-temperature UHT milk, it's never made it big in the U.S. As the Italian corporation that makes the UHT milk Parmalat found in the 1990s, the U.S. population has no taste for milk that's stored outside the fridge.

However, some people may be consuming UHT milk without even knowing it: According to Scientific American, most of the organic milk sold in the U.S. has been UHT-treated to mitigate longer transport times.