In the shady world of organized crime, no name struck greater freak and respect than that of Al Capone. The notorious Chicago mobster presided over an empire of bootleg alcohol, gambling, and other criminal enterprises. He maintained control over the multi-million-dollar operation through violence and fear. Anyone who opposed Al Capone could expect to have an expiration date placed on his life.
On a less-sinister and more public-health-minded note, Al Capone also bore much of the responsibility for putting the expiration date on the gallon of milk that is in your refrigerator.
Capone reached the height of his power and influence during the days of Prohibition. Capitalizing on the public’s demand for illegal alcohol, Capone operated distilleries, snuck liquor across the border, ran speakeasies, and bribed government officials to look the other way.
He also knew that there was a likely expiration date about to be stamped on the Prohibition era. He anticipated the rapidly approaching day when alcohol sale and use would again be legal in the United States, and he needed another revenue stream to replace the $100 million per year he was then enjoying.
Additionally, Capone recognized that few people in his line of work died from old age. The escalating violence between the Chicago gangs and internal power grabs in his own organization constantly threatened his life. The man whose name was synonymous with the mob was contemplating leaving that world behind before someone put an expiration date on his forehead.
He told his older brother, “I’ve got to get out, Ralph. 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.”
As he looked for ways to make money that did not involve organized crime, Capone turned his attention toward milk. The milk industry had a lot in common with the bootlegging business. It was a commodity that most people used nearly every day, and it required a smooth business operation that would take milk from the point of production through packaging, marketing, and distribution. He had experience in all of those areas, and it would not involve the breaking of any laws.
He had another reason for being interested in milk. His own family had been affected when someone got seriously ill by drinking milk that had gone bad. In the days before refrigerators were available to the public, the shelf life of milk was even shorter than today. As a result, sickness and death from expired milk were things that had touched almost every family.
Capone began to lobby Chicago politicians — many of whom were already (and illegally) on his payroll — to require visible expiration dates on every bottle of milk. While this was going on, he bought up all of the stamping equipment that would be needed to put the dates on the bottles. Once the expiration date mandate went into effect, he would be the only one who would be able to provide properly-labeled milk to the Windy City.
As noble as some of his motivation might have been, he just couldn’t stop from doing things his way. He ran into a distribution problem right away because Chicago’s milkmen were unionized. Only Teamsters’ Union milkmen could deliver milk within the city, and they were much more expensive than non-union labor. Capone tried to work out a deal with the Teamsters’ president. When negotiations failed, Capone had the man kidnapped and held for a $50,000 ransom.
The kidnapping had two positive effects for Capone. For one thing, it sent a strong message to the union that it should be a little more generous with its negotiating terms. Additionally, the $50,000 he received from the ransom demand became the seed money for Capone to purchase the milk processing business Meadowmoor Dairies.
With all of the obstacles successfully navigated, Capone was ready to start his new business enterprise. How successful he would have been remains unknown. Three months after getting started, Capone was imprisoned for tax evasion.
Curiously and ironically, Meadowmoor Dairy was not listed as being owned directly by Al Capone. For legal and tax purposes, he routinely put his properties in the names of others. In the case of his dairy business, it was officially owned by Capone’s lawyer. There is no record of whether Capone regretted this decision after losing his criminal tax evasion case.