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Al Capone and the Short, Confusing History of Expiration Dates

It's been a long and weird road.
Photo via Flickr user Mark Turnauckas

In an attempt to help curb food waste, The US Department of Agriculture has just come forward to encourage producers to start using the phrase "Best if Used By," rather than similar phrases—such as "Sell-By" and "Use-By"—which carry their own distinct nuances, and tend to confuse consumers.

The step is small—but one that follows a shifting public consciousness of food waste in the US. But how did we get here?


It's been a long and weird road that started with the Industrial Revolution, and Al Capone—depending on who you ask.

As millions of people migrated from farms to urban centers in the early 20th century, an apparent disconnect appeared between food producers and consumers. This is the time that less of our food started coming from the earth, and more of it started being processed in factories. And while Americans once knew the farmer who bottled their milk, it was now delivered by a faceless source at an unknown location—with no indication of when it was bottled, or whether it was safe to drink.

READ MORE: America Is Finally Getting Food Labeling That Makes Sense

This became a growing concern in the 1930s, a time when the Capone family had a big hand in the dairy industry. Different versions of the same story claim that either the infamous gangster, or his brother Ralph, lobbied for dating on milk after a friend/family member became sick from bad milk.

It remains unclear if the story is true, but it does provide an interesting footnote in the struggle of enforcing food quality through expiration dates in the US. And, contrary to popular belief, we still don't have food labeling that has anything to do with safety—just quality. While "Sell-By" is an instruction to stores indicating how long the food should be displayed on shelves, and "Use-By" is the last possible date at which the product will be "at peak quality," "Best if Used By", says the USDA, most clearly illustrates to consumers that the food's quality will be maintained for a certain period of time, after which, it will decline—not that it should go in the trash.


READ MORE: Stupid State Laws Cause Millions of Gallons of Good Milk to Get Thrown Out

The history of food labeling is less than 100 years old, and has only become standard practice in the last 50 years. Part of the difficulty in regulating expiration dates is due to the fact that neither the USDA, nor any other governmental organization, actually enforces them. Federal oversight only applies to one kind of food: baby formula; that's because it's required to contain the precise nutrition that is advertised on the label, and it will lost that nutrition if stored for too long.

Proposed legislation called the Food Date Labeling Act would put an end to that, by requiring food with a short shelf life to have an actual expiration date. We're still not there, but we are getting closer, thanks to years of research that have indicated a correlation between confusing food labeling and food waste.

In fact, the USDA says, "Foods not exhibiting signs of spoilage should be wholesome and may be sold, purchased, donated, and consumed beyond the labeled 'Best if Used By' date." Last year, The USDA even released an app, to help spread that message.

What that means is that, hey, maybe you will have to go back to dealing with food the way people have for millennia: sniffing, smelling, touching, and actually understanding a thing or two about the signs of spoilage, rather than blankly obeying the tyranny of the tiny black print on a bottle cap.

However, until the FDA or USDA creates a legal framework for food labeling, things may continue to be as confusing and inconsistent as they've ever been.