It's been almost one hundred years since New York City made it mandatory to pasteurize all milk, and the government is still debating what qualifies as safe to consume. For New Yorkers, it has been puzzling to see two sell-by dates on cartons of milk—one determined by the manufacturer and another (up to six days earlier) decided by the city.
Soon there will be only one sell-by date, and it will be the manufacturer’s date. Current NYC rules mandate that a dairy fluid is deemed unsafe for sale nine days after it was pasteurized, quite a bit shorter than the 14-15 day period set by the manufacturer. It appears that New York City's milk has had specialized sell-by dates since 1911. According to a New York Times article, in that year the selling period of milk was 36 hours. Over the years the NYC selling period has been extended and soon will be gotten rid of completely.
A lot of New Yorkers aren't sure why there are two dates on milk cartons. The "in NYC" date resulted from now antiquated issues—milk used to take a few days to get to stores and often sat outside on stoops. In both cases lack of refrigeration would cause the milk to spoil sooner. But now milk gets to stores quickly and home delivery of milk is rare. [Read more about the delivery of milk in the late nineteenth century.] Often New York residents throw out apparently unspoiled milk, simply because of the New York sell-by date.
Debate over the safety of milk has definitely run the entire gamut in New York City, from the swill milk discussed in the Moore Family tour here at the Museum to the overly cautious “in NYC” date to recent promotions among the health food community about the benefits of drinking "raw," unpasteurized milk. Even though this commotion over the safety of milk may seem over the top, tenement dwellers of the late nineteenth century definitely would have appreciated the concern. The Moores lived at 97 Orchard in 1869, long before the pasteurization laws of 1912. Women living in the tenements often had to feed their babies unpasteurized, bacteria-ridden, watered-down cow milk because wet nurses were not always available or accessible, and breast feeding was seen as unhealthy. But for families like the Moores, it was either drinking that milk or nothing at all. It wasn’t until the end of the 19th century that scientists began working to solve this problem here in New York, and it wasn't until the first day of the year 1912 that it became illegal to sell unpasteurized milk without labeling it so. [Read more.]
Below are images of a milk bottle and milk caps found at 97 Orchard. The milk cap on the left is Grade B while the one on the right is Grade A. Read here for the differences in the grading of milk.
Remember, June is National Dairy Month! We're thankful for the measures taken to ensure the milk we consume is safe, because it was not always this way.