Who invented expiration dates on milk


Kurt Olsen

Who has never heard of Al Capone? The famous Italian-American mobster became known for a number of actions, more or less sympathetic… One of them would have been to create expiration dates to protect consumers. A rumor to be taken with a grain of salt.

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More than 70 years after his death, the name Al Capone still resonates with everyone. While the famous gangster is known for numerous illegal activities, he also took part in one or two actions with positive outcomes, one of which is believed to be the creation of expiration dates. While this rumor may raise a few eyebrows, it is a fact that the gangster actually invested in the dairy business. The reason is simple: seeing that Prohibition was coming to an end, he sought to redirect his business (and invest in legal ventures at the same time), and milk presented a significant market with appealing profits.

It is said that Ralph Capone (Al’s brother) and Murray Humphreys (one of his associates) kidnapped the president of the local Milk Deliverers’ Union and used the ransom to establish their own dairy, Meadowmoor Dairies, in 1932. Their idea was to bring milk from Wisconsin, as it was cheaper, and bottle it themselves. This seemingly innocent little maneuver eventually led to a milk war in Chicago, pitting the Capones against the “milk cartel.”

What about the expiration dates?

This is where the story should be taken with a grain of salt. Two legends are in dispute:

  • The first one says that Al Capone and his brother Ralph Capone allegedly threatened Italian-American parishes in Chicago to distribute milk to children for free. They discovered that the milk being given was expired and demanded that an expiration date be placed on the bottles.
  • The second one tells that a close associate of the mobster fell ill from expired milk. Capone then ordered the milk union leaders to put an expiration date on each bottle of milk.

This latter version has been confirmed by Ralph Calpone’s granddaughter, Deirdre Capone, but there is no tangible evidence to prove that he was truly responsible for the creation of expiration dates.

Whatever the true story may be, the “family” sold even more milk and the food industry lobby applied the rule to all bottles. The measure was later extended to the entire country, even after Al Capone’s incarceration at Alcatraz in August 1934. Then, the system of expiration dates spread to the rest of the world. In France, it was the Casino group that reportedly first indicated (around 1959) the sell-by date on product packaging. However, it wasn’t until 1984 that the measure became mandatory for all perishable food products.

Contact Us

For more information or to make comments and suggestions, please contact:
Kurt Olsen
Dairy Development Coordinator, Missouri Department of Agriculture
Phone: (573) 291-5704
E-mail: [email protected]