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Al Capone’s Brother May Have Invented Date Labels For Milk

This legend says a lot about America’s food labeling system.

03/08/2016 5:25 PM IST | Updated 03/08/2016 5:29 PM IST
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Ralph "Bottles" Capone in 1938. 

Mobsters aren’t often associated with food safety ― or safety of any kind, really. But according to one tale, a notorious gangsters may have tried to make the dairy industry a little safer.

In the early 1930s, mobster Ralph Capone, Al Capone’s brother and Chicago’s Public Enemy Number 3allegedly convinced dairy producers in Illinois to stamp dates on milk bottles. Ralph knew a man whose son grew sick after drinking spoiled milk, the story goes, prompting the gangster to demand that the dairy industry beef up its health and safety standards.

There’s no definitive proof that Ralph was the first to push milk producers to put date labels on their milk. We reached out to the Food and Drug Administration, the Department of Agriculture and even a milk safety expert at Cornell University ― none could provide any information to substantiate the story. An online search through the records of the Illinois General Assembly proved fruitless, too. 

But Ralph’s 76-year-old granddaughter, Deirdre Capone, author of Uncle Al Capone: The Untold Story From Inside His Family, stands by the narrative. She said her grandfather’s efforts to put date labels on milk earned him the nickname “Bottles.”

“My grandfather went to Springfield, Illinois, totally on his own and he lobbied the milk industry to start putting the date that they bottled the milk right on the bottle,” Deirdre, who lives in Florida, told The Huffington Post. “Then people would make up their own mind if it was too old.”

(Another popular account claims Big Al pushed Chicago legislators to require dates on milk bottles. We were unable to confirm this with the city.)

The Capone family was a big player in the dairy business, and spoiled milk can in fact cause people to become ill in some cases, according to Marianne Gravely, technical information specialist at the Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Office. The best way to is to tell if milk is spoiled is to smell it, however, not to rely on the date stamped on the label, according to Niki Charalampopoulou, managing director of environmental nonprofit Feedback. 

Even if the Capone story is apocryphal, it highlights a truth about food safety in the United States: The current date labeling system is the result of piecemeal efforts to make food safer, which means date labels on food are often confusing and ineffective, according to experts.

While there’s a huge variety of date labels out there, most modern labels don’t say “bottled on” anymore. Instead, manufacturers typically stamp “sell by,” “use by” or “best before” next to dates on their products. These labels tell shoppers when food will lose its freshness, not when it will become unsafe. 

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Ralph Capone, brother of the critically ill gangster Al Capone, brings beer to newsmen on death watch at the Capone home at Miami Beach.

Most food producers didn’t start printing dates on food until the 1970s, according to a report from the Natural Resources Defense Council. By that time, many people in the U.S. had moved to cities and suburbs where they rarely came in contact with the sources of their food. Manufacturers were under pressure to assure shoppers that food was fresh by visibly printing expiration dates on their products. Several states also adopted laws requiring food producers to date products during this time.

While each state now has laws requiring date labels on food, manufacturers typically get to print those dates themselves with no government oversight, resulting in a patchwork labeling system that can bewilder consumers. Confusion about date labels is responsible for around 20 percent of the food waste in people’s homes, according to Charalampopoulou.

Efforts to standardize date labels ― including a bill introduced in Congress in May and a recent petition from Feedback― could help avoid up to 398,000 tons of food waste every year, according to a report from the nonprofit ReFED.

These efforts attempt to straighten out a confusing labeling system Ralph may have helped influence. If Ralph was the gold-hearted gangster his granddaughter remembers, perhaps he’d approve. 

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