Hot debate in milk expiration dates

News-DemocratJuly 14, 2014 

On July 6, I purchased a small carton of 2 percent milk at Hardee's in O'Fallon. It was Crowley brand milk, and the carton was stamped "Sell Before Aug. 4, 2014." That's 28 days. Later I went shopping at Schnucks in Fairview and the latest date on any of the Prairie Farms containers was July 19, just 13 days. Why 28 days on the small carton but 13 days on the larger ones?

-- D.E., of Fairview Heights

What you encountered was a continuing hot debate among dairy lovers: Would you want your milk pasteurized at higher temperatures to improve shelf life?

Federal law requires milk to be pasteurized if it is shipped across state lines for sale. Almost all states, including Illinois, also require all intrastate-produced milk sold in stores to be pasteurized as well.

Traditionally, the process used has been High Temperature Short Time pasteurization -- or HTST for short. The goal is to kill most bacteria in milk by raising its temperature to a minimum of 161 degrees Fahrenheit for 15 seconds. The result is a product with a shelf life of 16 to 21 days from the day it was packaged, according to Organic Valley in La Farge, Wis. This is the type of milk you found in Schnucks.

But in the early 1960s, Parmalat Finanziaria, a Milan, Italy, food company, noticed what poor-quality refrigerators many Europeans struggled with. So to help them reduce food spoilage, the company developed Ultra High Temperature pasteurization -- or ultra pasteurization, as some call it. By heating milk to 280 degrees for just a few seconds, it found it could kill even more nasty stuff and allow the milk to be stored unopened at room temperature for six months or more.

Now, UHT milk is consumed by an estimated 70 percent of Europeans, including 97 percent of Belgians and 96 percent of the French and Spanish. And, sure enough, when I called Crowley Foods in Binghamton, N.Y., they immediately told me that the milk in those small, individualized cartons sold in fast-food chains go through UHT pasteurization to extend its life. Hence, the big difference in expiration dates you saw.

But Parmalat did not introduce UHT in the United States until 1993, and the process has not seen the popularity it enjoys in Europe. So why wouldn't consumers hop on a bandwagon that promises longer product life and more convenience? Many say it changes the milk's nutritional value, taste and texture.

As mentioned before, the goal of traditional pasteurization is to kill an estimated 99.9 percent of germs in fresh milk. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, raw milk consumption is responsible for nearly three times more hospitalizations than any other food-borne disease. Pasteurization can kill a long list of nasty bugs, including salmonella, listeria and E. coli, leading to illnesses ranging from diphtheria to Q-fever.

"While the milk inside the cow's udder is sterile, it may become immediately contaminated as it exits the udder by microorganisms residing in the teat canal, on the surface of the udder or on the milking equipment," according to Organic Valley.

UHT kills even more bacteria and spores, but it makes the final product less healthy, some contend. As you may know, many bacteria that live in our gut are beneficial. That's why, for example, many people eat yogurt for an extra helping of those good bugs. It's also why some people still swear by raw milk.

"There are all kinds of bacteria living in milk, and, depending on the farmer, most of the bacteria (in milk) is good," argue the folks at Shelter Family Dairy in Kalkaska, Mich., which offers only HTST pasteurization. "When the milk is pasteurized, it kills the bacteria off . By only heating to the minimum required temperature, we are preserving as much of the good bacteria as possible."

Others say the UHT process destroys some folate and other nutrients and may cause the milk to taste bland or even burned from the high temperature. In addition, some contend the extra high heat may change the texture to where additives such as guar gum and carrageenan are needed to restore thickening.

So while UHT is now favored in places like Puerto Rico and Brazil, where refrigeration sometimes is at a premium, HTST remains the most popular process in the U.S.

Today's trivia

How did the "hair of the dog" hangover cure originate?

Answer to Sunday's trivia: Ralph Dibny turned into DC Comic's Elongated Man by developing gingold from the rare gingo fruit of the Yucatan to give him his stretching ability. He debuted in The Flash No. 112 (May 1960), but quickly became a popular detective who solved odd mysteries.

Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427 or rschlueter@bnd.com or call 618-239-2465.

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