This past week Mister Boomer finished a container of milk. It had been the first he had been able to finish in a while, seeing as it usually spoiled sooner than the time it took to use it up. This container was particularly interesting, though, since it lasted 22 days past the expiration date marked on the side. Mister B dubbed it the “Chanukah Milk,” because it lasted far longer than anyone ever expected. “It’s a miracle,” he said, rinsing the quart container and dropping the plastic into the recycling bin.
Then he remembered recent articles that talked about how expiration dates on food packages are close to useless. Even though they are ubiquitous on all kinds of food items now, manufacturers can make the dates whatever they want, in addition to adopting the myriad of possibilities of “Sell By,” “Best By” or “Expires On.” All a consumer wants to know is, “Is this product safe to eat? And if I do, will it make me sick?” The USDA warns consumers that dates are there for “quality and not for safety.” Did you know there is no federal statute controlling the appearance, regulation of dates, or mandate on their use, except for infant formula? As Cecil the sea serpent used to say, “What the-e-e heck?!” Cynics say the dates persist because the manufacturers would rather we become paranoid and throw things out, so we have to buy more. There may be something to that, since Americans throw away 40 to 50 percent of the food they buy.
That got Mister B thinking that we didn’t have these expiration dates when we were young boomers. We had two simple tests: Does it look OK? Does it smell OK? The old adage went, “When in doubt, throw it out,” but that was because, as Jimmy Durante reminded us, “The nose knows.” So when did these expiration dates on packages first appear?
Believe it or not, many credit Al Capone with putting the first expiration dates on milk. The story goes that when gangster Al was trying to legitimize his businesses, he told his cohorts that his organization needed to invest in something that people used every day. He opined that beer and liquor — his main sources of income — were weekly purchases at best for most people. After a family member got sick drinking spoiled milk, it hit him that milk was the perfect legitimate business to explore. Al and Ralph Capone bought the Meadowmoor Dairies in Chicago in 1932, and quickly started to place the date the milk was packed on the containers, so consumers wouldn’t have the same problem as his family member.
Being the business man that he was, Mr. Capone attempted to corner the local milk market. He used his powers of persuasion to convince the Chicago City Council that dates on milk should be required by law, and he got his wish. Then he went to work trying to fix the price of milk with his competitors, and it didn’t hurt him any that with a new law on the books, he was the only one who had the stamping machinery that was now needed to be in compliance with the law. Voila! Dates on all milk appeared in Chicago.
Fast forward to the Boomer Generation. In the 1950s, it was standard industry practice for manufacturers — especially of canned goods — to stamp numerical or cryptic codes on their products. These codes were indecipherable by consumers, but were used by company workers to rotate warehouse stock and keep track of shipments.
As more people purchased processed foods in the 1960s, they began to worry about the quality and freshness of what was in the frozen foods they were buying. Yet it was 1970 before easily readable stamped dates began to appear across the country on store shelves for a wide variety of products. A survey in 1975 established that 85 percent of people preferred the Month, Day, Year configuration that is widely used today.
Mister Boomer recalls his mom employing the sniff test. Once he was sent back to the corner grocery when his mother declared that the container of cottage cheese she had just sent him to get was spoiled. It didn’t smell right to her, so back to the store Mister B went. After telling the old woman behind the counter the situation, she opened the lid and sniffed it herself. “Smells fine to me,” she said. Then, grossing Mister B out to no end, she dragged her finger across the untouched cottage cheese, scooping up a bit and tasting it. “Tastes fine to me,” she said. All a young Mister B could utter was that his mom didn’t think so and she said he should get another one from the store. Reluctantly, the woman gave Mister B another container and he ran home with it.
Do you have memories of utilizing the “sniff test,” boomers? Do you live by the dates that are stamped on your products today, or do you rely on the time-honored tradition that worked for our families for decades?