Curious Questions: Can you trust expiry dates on food?

Best before and use-by dates claim to show us when our food is likely to have gone off — but how are they figured out, how did we do without them, and do we really need them? Martin Fone investigates and finds a tale of dodgy food, dodgier dates, and an unlikely side-hustle run by the legendary gangster Al Capone.

One of the weirdest moments in the weirdest of years was a battle royal between a 60p Iceberg lettuce bought from Tesco and a beleaguered British Prime Minister, sparked off by an article in The Economist on October 11th, calling Liz Truss ‘the iceberg lady’ and claiming she had ‘the shelf-life of a lettuce’.

Never ones to let an opportunity slip, The Daily Star rigged up a webcam on the lettuce to see whether it would outlast the Premier. Seven days later, albeit slightly wilted, the lettuce had seen her off and, in the process, had become an internet sensation.

Cruel or amusing as the stunt was, it cleverly drew the nation’s attention to its attitudes to the longevity of foodstuffs, a matter of increasing importance as households grapple with the soaring cost of living. According to the government-backed Waste Resources Action Group (WRAP), British households throw away about 4.5 billion tonnes of edible food a year, 70% of the nation’s edible food waste and enough to fill ninety Royal Albert Halls or make an additional 10.5 billion meals. Potatoes, followed by bread and milk, are the most wasted.

As well as costing £13.8 billion a year or the equivalent of £470 per household, there is an environmental cost. Edible food waste in landfill sites degrades over time, releasing methane gas into the atmosphere which, as it traps heat within the atmosphere, is twenty-five times more harmful than carbon dioxide. Although a concerted effort has been made to reduce the size of the edible food waste problem since the nadir of 2015, the numbers are still eye-watering.

‘Sausages were called bags o’mystery in the 19th century as no one was quite sure what was in them, and sailors often had to dine on bow wow mutton — meat so bad that it could well have been dog’

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A contributory factor to the problem is the practice of dating foods either by way of a best before or a use-by date, the subtle differences of which are not always appreciated by the consumer. The best before date, the Food Safety Agency’s website points out, relates to quality, the point up to which it will be at its best, but it will still be safe to eat after that date. The use-by date, however, relates to the safety of the food which should not be cooked or consumed after midnight of the date displayed.

Critics of food dating point out that they are set by manufacturers, are, unsurprisingly conservative, and unnecessary as there is a legal obligation under the Food safety Act 1990, as amended by the General Food Regulations 2004, not to sell food that is not ‘of the nature, substance, or quality demanded’ by the consumer. Large supermarkets are already abandoning the use of best before dates, a move likely to be accelerated by WRAP’s three-point plan, launched in February 2022, to reduce household waste and plastic packaging. If adopted, they claim, it will save fourteen million shopping baskets full of food waste and 1,110 truck loads of plastic.

The idea that a food will suddenly turn rancid at the stroke of midnight on the appointed day is laughable — yet try telling your kids that.

It was only after the mass adoption of refrigeration and the disconnect between food sources and their point of sale that concerns about the freshness and foodstuffs emerged. Until then, eating was simpler, using foods that were either seasonally available or which had been cured or preserved. Even after the great diaspora from the countryside to the towns, consumers, invariably housewives, would buy what was needed each day.

The quality of food on offer was determined by the senses, a visual check to see whether there was mould on bread or a sniff test to determine whether milk or dairy products had gone off. However, many fell foul of unscrupulous traders or were too poor to afford anything other than substandard food. Not for nothing were sausages colloquially called bags o’mystery in the 19th century as no one was quite sure what was in them, and sailors often had to dine on bow wow mutton, meat so bad that it could well have been dog.

“Best before and use-by dates, far from being helpful and reassuring, sowed the seeds of confusion in the mind of shoppers”

On January 17, 1920, America embarked upon what Herbert Hoover described as ‘a great social and economic experiment’ with the implementation of the National Prohibition Act which outlawed the manufacture, sale, or transportation of ‘intoxicating liquor’. The thirteen-year experiment ended in failure, defeated by the insuppressible demand for alcohol amongst the public and inefficiency and corruption within the law enforcement agencies, which allowed violent gangsters to supply alcohol, often of dubious quality, at great profit.

Chief amongst them was Al Capone, who built up a business worth $60m based on the manufacture and transportation of alcohol with side lines in gambling and prostitution. His gang ruthlessly protected and expanded his business, earning him and his brother, Ralph, the sobriquets of public enemy numbers one and three respectively. The passing of the 21st Amendment in February 1933, ratified on December 5th, ending prohibition was a severe blow to Capone’s business empire.

With a transportation network and bottling facilities, he turned his attention to a product that everyone consumed, and which offered a bigger mark-up than alcohol, milk. That milk in the Chicago was supplied by a union-controlled farm, Meadowmoor Dairies, was but a minor inconvenience. Capone sent his boys round, kidnapped the Union President, ransomed him for $50,000, and when the money was paid, used it to buy the farm.

According to Deirdre Capone, in her book Uncle Al Capone: The Untold Story From Inside His Family (2010), it was her grandfather, Ralph rather than Al, as popularly supposed, who lobbied the dairy industry to beef up its health and safety standards, after a friend’s child had become seriously ill from drinking out-of-date milk. His efforts to put labels on milk bottles with expiry dates earned Ralph the nickname of ‘Bottles’. It was not an altogether altruistic exercise as the Capones had extensive bottle labelling facilities. Whilst there is no independent evidence to substantiate the claims, shortly after the Capones involved themselves in the milk industry, date labels became mandatory in Illinois.

Date labels on foodstuffs first appeared in Britain behind the scenes, in the storerooms of Marks and Spencer, in the 1950s as a means of improving control over stock levels and, ironically, to reduce wastage. In 1973 the store’s executives brought them out from the back of the store on to the shelves, calling them sell-by dates and, in an advertising blitz, informing their customers that ‘the sell-by date means that St Michael foods are fresh’. There was even a television advert featuring the model, Twiggy.

Other supermarkets soon followed suit, as the Marks and Spencer experience showed that shoppers found reassurance in purchasing foodstuffs with a sell-by date. By the 1980s the scope of dating food was expanded to encompass best before and use-by dates, which, far from being helpful and reassuring, sowed the seeds of confusion in the mind of shoppers, especially as Britons became more adventurous in the type and range of foods they bought.

Now the tide has turned once more, and the practice of date labelling foods is rapidly approaching its expiry date. Dates will continue to be shown on highly perishable foodstuffs, for food safety and public health reasons, but for the rest we will be reliant upon our senses and the sniff test. Granny knew best all along.