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HELENA — The state Board of Livestock decided Wednesday to wait until March at the earliest to decide whether to scrap its rule requiring 12-day "sell-by" dates to be marked on containers.

A state hearing examiner had recommended in October that the rule be abolished, saying there's no health argument for keeping it and the rule results in "the destruction of perfectly good milk." The official, John Sullivan, a Helena lawyer, suggested that the board instead allow milk processors to set their own dates based on their own tests.

Sullivan presided over six days of hearings in 2010 in response to a case initiated by Core-Mark International, a food and beverage distributor for convenience stores and independent grocery stories, seeking to change Montana's "sell-by" date rule.

The board's chair, Jan French of Hobson, wasn't able to attend the meeting and wasn't ready to have the board make a decision Wednesday, said Christian Mackay, the executive secretary of the Board of Livestock.

Mackay said the board had a number of options, including asking people to appear before the board, looking back at the record in the case, asking questions of any group, proposing a rule, conducting another hearing or seeking public comment.

"I'm not comfortable doing anything right now," said the board's vice chair Linda Nielsen of Nashua, who was presiding over the meeting in French's absence.

"I need more time," said board member John Lehfeldt of Lavina. "I can't digest all that stuff."

He said the board could change the "sell-by" date to 14 days "or whatever."

Jeffrey Lewis, a board member from Corvallis who represents the dairy industry, said the first priority is "getting a good, fresh product to the consumer."

Board member Ed Waldner of Chester said milk with a 12-day "sell-by" date is fresher than that with a 14-day date.

"I'm not saying 14 won't be something we can't live with," he said.

Lewis said Montana's shorter "sell-by" date "actually saved a lot of people from having a bad experience with milk."

"We want people to drink milk," Waldner said. "We don't want people to turn away from it."

The seven-member board has four members each representing the cattle industry. Each of the other three members represents one of these three industries: swine, dairy or sheep.

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