Here's What The Secret Code On Your Milk Gallon Really Means

When you go to buy a gallon of milk from your local grocery store, you might not be thinking about the dairy farm that it came from — but there is actually a way to tell just that, thanks to the secret code on the carton. While everyone knows about the expiration date, near it is another number, which is the key to finding out where the cows your milk came from live.

Many dairy farmers in the United States sell to regional dairy plants instead of directly to grocery stores, so your milk may make several stops before it gets to your fridge. To decode the milk's location, look for the number that has two digits, then a hyphen, then a string of other numbers on the container. Once you find the code, you can plug it into the Where is My Milk From? website. Then viola, your milk has a birthplace.

Decoding the dairy code

The two digits at the beginning of the code give you the state the milk came from, according to Cornell University's Ag Informer, which gives a list of all the state codes. (For example, 06 is California, 55 is Wisconsin, and 36 is New York.) The state codes are in alphabetical order, including the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. They run from 01 to 56, excluding numbers 03, 07, 14, and 52. The series of numbers and possibly letters after the hyphen indicate the dairy it came from.

But what about your ice cream? Does it, too, have a secret code? According to Where is My Milk From?, this same system applies to other dairy products as well. The site says it works for yogurt, chocolate milk, coffee creamer, cottage cheese, ice cream, and more — even soy milk, which is decidedly not dairy.

So next time you're at the grocery store, check out how far your milk has traveled. Those cows could be closer than you think.