How Al Capone Got Expiration Dates On Milk Bottles

“This American system of ours . . . call it Americanism, call it capitalism, call it what you like, gives to each and every one of us a great opportunity if we only seize it with both hands and make the most of it.” —Al Capone

In A Nutshell

American gangster Al Capone fought to have expiration, or “sell by,” dates put on milk bottles, supposedly after one of his relatives became sick from drinking milk that had expired. But his grandniece gave us a more likely reason: Al Capone was looking for a legitimate business that could fund his lifestyle after the end of Prohibition. It was believed that all stamping equipment for milk expiration dates was under his control. However, many “sell by” dates don’t reflect food safety, causing 90 percent of Americans to throw out perfectly good food. Taking the opposite view, the National Health Service (NHS) in England believes the public is endangering their health by ignoring “use by” dates.

The Whole Bushel

In the 1920s and early 1930s, Al Capone ran the Chicago Outfit, also known as the Chicago Mafia, when gangs battled for control of illegal alcohol distribution during Prohibition. According to Capone’s grandniece, Deirdre Marie Capone, her Uncle Al made over $100 million per year from bootlegging. As Prohibition was nearing its end, Capone needed to find another way to fund his grand lifestyle. But he was tired of the mortal danger that came with his illegal business activities. Members of other Chicago gangs thought nothing of breaking their promises or threatening violence against other families. Frightened that he or his family might be killed, Capone was plagued by nightmares. He wanted to leave the Outfit.

“I’ve got to get out, Ralph,” Capone would rant to his older brother. “I’ve got enough money. I don’t need this insanity. Weiss, Moran, and [the members of the other gangs] are idiots. You can’t do business with crazy people. I’ve been shot at, almost poisoned with prussic acid, and there is an offer of $50,000 to any gunman who can kill me. They don’t understand that there’s enough for all of us. [. . .] They’re [mad] because I run a better business. I make more money than they do. [. . .] I run my outfit like a business. It is a business.”

Shortly after, Capone thought of milk. It fit his criteria for a legitimate business that could make a lot of money. Almost everyone uses milk every day, especially families with kids. The markup on milk was greater than that of alcohol. Best of all, the Chicago Outfit already controlled bottling facilities for illegal alcohol distribution, which could be adapted for milk.

Although Deirdre Capone doesn’t seem to confirm the story, some reports say that Al Capone got into the milk business after one of his relatives got sick from drinking milk that had expired. Either way, the lack of regulations on milk production provided Capone with an opportunity to corner the market. He had already developed a reputation for being something of a latter-day Robin Hood in Chicago. During the Depression, Capone opened the first soup kitchen, offering three meals daily to financially struggling individuals and their families. The soup kitchen was so popular that he opened more. But Capone went beyond spending money to help people. He actually went to the soup kitchens and served meals himself. So it seemed in character for him to lobby the Chicago City Council for a law to stamp expiration, or “sell by,” dates on milk bottles to protect the city’s children from harm.

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Capone set his sights on acquiring Meadowmoor Dairies, a milk processor. It was believed that all stamping equipment was already under his control. After Chicago passed the law mandating visible expiration dates on all milk bottles, Capone had the ability to effectively control the local milk market.

But he still had a problem. Back then, only Teamsters’ Union milkmen delivered fresh local milk to Chicago homes. Capone wanted to use nonunion truckers to deliver less expensive, imported milk from Wisconsin. When he couldn’t work out a deal to make that happen, he had the union’s president kidnapped. With the $50,000 ransom, Capone bought Meadowmoor Dairies. Deirdre Capone says her uncle didn’t really enjoy the milk business because it wasn’t as good or glamorous as illegal liquor. In any case, three months after his milk business opened, Capone was imprisoned.

Even though Capone went away, milk expiration dates stayed. However, many “sell by,” “use by,” and “best before” dates don’t reflect food safety, causing 90 percent of Americans to throw out about $165 billion of perfectly good food each year. Laws throughout the nation are contradictory and often unjustified. According to a Natural Resources Defense Council report, “This convoluted system [of] date labeling [doesn’t] provide indicators of freshness. Rather, this creates confusion and leads many consumers to believe, mistakenly, that date labels are signals of a food’s microbial safety.”

Taking the opposite view, the National Health Service (NHS) in England believes the public is endangering their health by ignoring “use by” dates, the final day a food can be consumed safely, and “best before” dates, the day a food’s quality starts to deteriorate. “It’s tempting just to give your food a sniff to see if you think it’s gone off,” explains food safety expert Bob Martin. “But food bugs like E. coli and salmonella don’t cause food to smell off, even when they may have grown to dangerous levels. So food could look and smell fine but still be harmful.” It appears to be a bit of a mixed bag.

Show Me The Proof

Uncle Al Capone: The Untold Story from Inside His Family, by Deirdre Marie Capone
Times News: Milk expiration dates, courtesy of Al Capone
Mother Jones: You Just Threw Out a Perfectly Good Gallon of Milk Because You Think the “Sell By” Date Means Something
National Health Service (UK): Public urged to not ignore ‘use by’ dates

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