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Down the drain

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Three filmmakers, operating two cameras and a boom mic, hurry through Pattee Creek Market on a recent Friday afternoon. They are frantically tracking the seemingly mundane action of a store employee transferring milk cartons from one side of the market to a sink on the other side. There, he will pour the contents of the cartons down the drain in compliance with a state law that forbids the sale of milk more than 12 days after it's pasteurized.

Led by director and Harvard Law School lecturer Rebecca Richman Cohen, the filmmakers are working with Emily Broad Leib, deputy director of Harvard's Food Law and Policy Clinic, and Emily Deddens, a Harvard law student, on a short documentary about how confusing dating on food products leads to waste throughout the United States.

According to Leib, Montana's policy regarding milk dating is the nation's strictest—and therefore the most glaring example of what's wrong nationwide. Montana is one of only two states to legislate the dating of milk. Elsewhere, manufacturers decide what kind of date to stamp on their product. Even when those dates are merely freshness guidelines instead of no-sell mandates, though, Leib says they perpetuate the idea that drinking milk after these dates is a health concern, which it's not.

"Nine in 10 consumers have said, 'I throw food away after the date, whether it's sell-by, use-by, best-by, because I'm afraid it's not safe,'" Leib says. Instead, she would like to see a uniform, consistent dating system for food products "that makes it really clear this is freshness, not safety."

Pattee Creek estimates it pours 20-100 gallons a week down the drain due to the state's sell-by rule, and all that spilled milk is just a drop in the much larger bucket of food waste. Deddens says 40 percent of food produced in the nation is thrown away, leading to inefficiencies in production and transportation, as well as unnecessary trash accumulation.

"Food waste contributes to climate change, but it's hard to go out and say, 'I'm going to fix climate change,'" Deddens says. "That's overwhelming. But this is something that's solvable."

The effort to overturn Montana's milk dating law has been ongoing for some eight years, says Christian Mackay, executive officer of the Montana Department of Livestock, which is responsible for the regulation. But, Mackay points out, the rule has withstood numerous challenges in the courts and in the legislature, which killed a bill designed to overturn the law this session. Mackay defends the sell-by date, arguing it's designed "to give most of the [milk's] freshness to the consumers." He also argues that there's no "documented proof of this widespread dumping of milk that we hear about."

The film crew excpects its documentary to air sometime this fall. The goal, Cohen says, "is to raise awareness with consumers but also to change policy." To that end, they aim for the film to be only about five minutes long and easy to share online.

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