Thursday, May 6, 2010

Milk: A Moral Issue?

This post will not be about deplorable conditions in the dairy industry and why we should all go vegan (sorry, Annie), or about why it's probably not a good thing for the National Dairy Council to have launched a campaign to promote milk as an aid to maintaining a healthy weight when the actual data is inconclusive and may even point to the opposite effect, or why we should boycott the makers of baby formula who push economically disadvantaged mothers to choose formula over breastfeeding. (Those are all valid issues, and if you'd like, you can find out all you ever wanted to know about them from the website

No, instead, this post is about a burning question of ethics in my own household: whether or not it is morally acceptable, when selecting a gallon of milk from the dairy case, to dig behind the front row or two of jugs and pull out one from the back which has more time remaining before its "sell by" date.

I have always considered myself to be a rather highly ethical person. I've been known to ask the supermarket checker, "Are you sure that rang in?" as she passes an item over the scanner. If I found a wallet, I would return it without thinking twice. I once bought a pair of shorts for $5 in a local second-hand store and discovered a $20 bill in the pocket, so I called the store and tracked down the previous owner of the shorts and gave it back to her. (She was really, really happy about it.)

I believe in karma, and I believe in living your life in a way that allows you to sleep well at night, but I have never thought twice about choosing the gallon of milk with the "best date." When my kids were at home I often sent them to the store for milk, always adding, "Make sure it has a good date!" It never occurred to me that I might be leading them down the twisted path of immorality and corruption...until today.

Usually, I'm the one who buys our milk at the grocery store, or stops to pick it up on my way home from work. Lately, however, I've been consuming less milk myself--I still use it on cereal, and I cook with it (and I have no intention of giving up ice cream or cheese, two foods without which my world would be a gray and dreary place), but, for whatever reason (probably partly from reading the information on sites like the idea of drinking a big glass of milk no longer appeals to me, so I've switched to drinking water or iced tea and taking calcium supplements. Since Tony still drinks milk every day (even though [nag, nag, nag] I keep suggesting that he could have a mild [or moderate] intolerance to lactose, and it could be the cause of some of his chronic gastric distress, and I keep reminding him to take the Lactaid tablets I bought for him, just in case they help [they don't seem to]), he's often the one who notices when our milk supply is getting low, and a few times recently he's stopped at a small convenience store and picked up a gallon.

This morning I noticed that the partial gallon of milk in the refrigerator is dated May 15th, while the unopened gallon he brought home yesterday is dated May 12th.

"Did you notice that this gallon of milk you bought is only dated for May 12th?" I asked.

(Today is May 6th, and we'll probably use the new gallon up before May 12th anyway, so, in retrospect, it was probably completely unnecessary for me to say anything about it at all, but the fact that I said it anyway is evidence of the fact that nearly 21 years of marriage have not taught me much.)

"Yeah," he said. "I just took the one that was in front. I saw that it had about a week left, so I figured it didn't matter."

Didn't matter? Didn't matter? When the possibility exists that just behind this particular gallon of milk was another gallon that was several days fresher? Aughhh! To me, that's like bidding on a job and finding out that there's good news and bad news--you got the bid, but you bid twice as much as the next bidder. Well, OK, maybe it's not exactly like that, but anyway....

Well! It turns out that not only does Tony think it "doesn't matter," but he actually thinks there is something morally wrong in digging through the dairy case and helping oneself to the freshest milk! He wouldn't buy milk that was outdated, or only had a couple of days left before its last sale date, he explained, but if there's enough time left before the date to use it up, he "doesn't think it's right" to bypass it in favor of the fresher stuff in the back of the case.

This is a revelation to me. And, of course, the dairy case is not the only area of the grocery store where I'm guilty of what Tony would call "high-grading" (which, in logging, is the practice of cutting only the best, most lucrative trees on a woodlot, regardless of which trees need to be harvested for the overall health of the forest)--I regularly sort through rows of those plastic boxes of baby spinach and unstack piles of peppers in the produce department, and pull loaves of bread off the shelf in the bread aisle to get to the fresher ones behind them. (Note: I always put everything back neatly the way I found it, and I never move other fresher stuff to the front for other people to scoop up; I figure anyone who wants the freshest selection should be willing to do the work to get it.)

Tony feels this is wrong, because "if you always take the freshest stuff, someone else always has to take the older stuff." I tried to argue with him, but now I'm actually starting to second-guess myself. Is it morally wrong for me to take the freshest milk (bread, peppers, spinach, or whatever) and leave the tired stuff for someone else? Is it unfair to those little old ladies in electric shopping carts who can't reach to the back of the dairy case, or to the top of the pepper pile? To harried grocery-shopping mothers who send their little kids to "grab a gallon of milk and meet me at the check-out"? To the illiterate, mathematically-challenged, and careless shoppers among us? I wonder about this.

Anyone who has spent a lot of time in grocery stores knows it's a dog-eat-dog world. Haven't we all heard the phrase "come early for best selection"? One store brags that it has "the freshest meats;" another says it knows that, when it comes to freshness, its customers are "picky, picky, picky" and guarantees they'll be satisfied. If I figure out exactly when my store puts out the freshest produce and time my trip to coincide with that, am I doing anything wrong?

And, of course, there have always been jokes and parodies about people who squeeze the fruits and vegetables to check it for quality and ripeness. Remember those old "please don't squeeze the Charmin" commercials? OK, they were ridiculous, but they were obviously based on the idea that grocery shoppers are in relentless pursuit of the best quality, right? My friend Maria's uncle once yelled at Paul Newman (yes, the Paul Newman) for squeezing a grapefruit in his market in Bridgeport, Connecticut. (He didn't recognize him, but another customer did, and tried to get Paul to autograph the grapefruit for her. I don't remember if he did it or not.) I personally don't squeeze produce because it falls outside of my moral comfort zone, but I will pick it over pretty carefully and reject anything that's been bruised by someone else's over-zealous handling.

But Tony, who I suspect may have an over-developed sense of morality, was pretty serious about the fact that high-grading the dairy case is inconsistent with the Greater Common Good. (When I told him I didn't really think it was, he actually said, "Well, I may just be better than you." Grrr.)

I'm actually kind of surprised by the vehemence with which he defended his position, since, when it comes to most of our food, he's something of a freshness fiend. If he grew corn, he'd be one of those people who has to make sure the water is already boiling before he picks it (not that there's anything wrong with that), and he's always asking me "how long things stay good in the freezer." (The answer to that question, I'm sure, falls somewhere between Tony's opinion--"nothing should be frozen for more than a few weeks or it starts to go downhill" and my mother's opinion [which I've largely adopted]--"nothing ever goes bad once you've put it in the freezer! Freezer burn? What freezer burn? Why, I had a hot dog just the other night that was frozen in 1998, and it was just fine!")

[Aside: just yesterday, I found a container in my freezer marked "4 cups apple juice for jelly, 11/6/99." (It was most likely liquid I drained off after making a huge pot of apple sauce with overly juicy apples.) I thawed it out, and it still smelled fine--like apples, not like freezer burn, but I dumped it down the drain, not because I don't think it would make perfectly lovely apple jelly, but because if I haven't been moved to make apple jelly any time in the past 10 1/2 years, it's not terribly likely that I will any time soon. My mother would certainly have used it, though, rather than "let it go to waste."]

I may not worry much about how long foods will keep once they've been frozen (or canned--we just ate a jar of bread-and-butter pickles that was dated 2004, and they were just fine), but fresh foods are another story, and unless someone is able to convince me otherwise, I'll probably continue to dig around in the back of the dairy case for the freshest gallon of milk. It probably won't keep me up at night as much as worrying about the milk souring in the refrigerator before we can use it up.