Food Expiration Date Labels

Food Policy

Last week, the Natural Resources Defense Council released a report titled "The Dating Game: How Confusing Food Date Labels Lead to Food Waste in America." The gist of it is something that most Americans can probably agree on: Labels on our food that seek to aid us are often very confusing.

Some labels state "sell by," which is presumably directed at the producer. Others have "use by" dates, which presumably inform consumers when food will go bad. Still other food labels read "best before," which implies that the item can still be eaten after the printed date, though it might not taste as good as it should.

The issue, according to the NRDC, is that these labels are "both poorly understood and surprisingly underregulated, such that their meanings and timeframes are generally not defined in law." What that means is that any producer can pretty much put any date or no date at all on its products, and consumers follow these dates without really knowing what they mean.

There is no comprehensive research on the amount of food waste generated by labeling systems (or lack thereof), but talk to any chef or market owner and he or she will tell you it's a big issue.

"It's the biggest rip-off there is," says Peter Basralian, controller, administrator and part-time chef at Phoenicia Foods. I had phoned Phoenicia to get in touch with the operations manager there, Raffi Tcholakian, but Basralian, who answered the call, was happy to give me an earful about the chaotic state of food labeling in America

"Expiration dates are premature from the actual dates they expire," Basralian says, echoing the findings of the NRDC. "We have to throw out so much food because of those dates."

Legally, restaurants and other businesses that sell food cannot use or sell consumables that are past their expiration, use-by or sell-by dates, even if the food is clearly still safe for human consumption. When I did talk to Tcholakian, he confirmed what Basralian had said. He noted that at Phoenicia, they don't really encounter issues with labeling their own fresh products, since most of it is off the shelves and replaced by new sandwiches or deli meat within a day or two.

"The issues we have are regarding the products we use," Tcholakian says. "I've eaten a lot of expired stuff myself that we can't sell, and it's still good. We give it away to homeless shelters and other organizations because we just can't sell it."

This practice is helpful to the shelters, of course, but it costs restaurants and businesses. Worse, though, is the effect that excess food production has on the environment. According to the NRDC's report, a 30 percent decrease in consumer waste could save an estimated 100 million acres of cropland.

The report also points out that the production of food that is wasted in the U.S. consumes as much as 25 percent of America's freshwater supply.

Why so much waste?

Well, confusing labels are a giant part of the problem. Federal law doesn't regulate, or even require, the use of date labels. The FDA and the USDA both have some power to create guidelines and regulate what producers do, but what they implement varies from state to state and organization to organization.

In Texas, only shellfish is subject to specific labeling laws. The law reads, "the dealer shall assure that each package containing less than 64 fluid ounces of fresh or frozen molluscan shellfish shall have [...] (2) a 'sell by date' which provides a reasonable subsequent shelf life or the words 'Best if used by' followed by a date when the product would be expected to reach the end of its shelf life." Anything else can be labeled or not labeled however companies see fit. Of course, it's in a company's best interest to make labels as clear as possible to prevent the possibility of human illness, but rumors abound that companies print expiration dates on items that apply long before the items actually expire as a means of selling more product. Unfortunately, there isn't any way to prove this.

Recently, Doug Rauch, a former president of the Trader Joe's grocery chain, decided to do something about all the excess food waste coming from stores, restaurants and homes. He's planning to open a market in Dorchester, Massachusetts, the Daily Table, that will assemble expired or past-date foods and prepare and repackage them for retail sale. He says the store will open next year.

Rauch tells National Public Radio that his goal is to "utilize this 40 percent of this food that is wasted. This is, to a large degree, excess, overstocked, wholesome food that's thrown out by grocers, etc...at the end of the day because of the sell-by dates."

The business will be a grocery store-restaurant hybrid selling prepared food primarily composed of past-date fruit and vegetable dishes. Rauch notes that food banks have been doing this sort of thing for years, and he thinks it's a great business model to make good, cheap food easily accessible while simultaneously fighting food waste.

One of the best ways for individuals to combat food waste is, first of all, to use the dates as guidelines, not strict rules. Smell your food. Taste your food. Look at your food. Moldy fruits and vegetables probably won't taste great, but bad mold on cheese can be easily cut off to reveal perfectly good cheese underneath. If your milk smells sour, it probably is, but if it's one or two days past the expiration date and still smells fine, it is more than likely safe to drink. If you buy food from farmers' markets, talk to the sellers about their products. Knowing when an apple was picked will help you decide how long you think it should remain on your counter before you eat it. When you cook and eat, use your eyes and nose.

Still, most experts, and restaurant owners, agree that the government should be doing more.

"At Phoenicia, we try to educate our customers as much as we can," explains Tcholakian. "But I think it has to be regulated in the market, and no one's doing that yet."


Mouths on Fire
Top 5 ginger beers/ales to try.

Joanna O'Leary

As a ginger who happens to love ginger, I am always on the lookout for libations that incorporate my favorite spice. And, in eternal pursuit of a higher tolerance for heat, I have also taken to trying spicier ginger ales and ginger beers. Here are five of my favorites:

5.Vernors Ginger Ale. Through some Michigan natives, I became aware of Vernors, which has something of a cult following among Wolverine-State expats. This spirited soda deftly manages to combine a sweet creaminess with subtle spice notes, making it the perfect not-so-hot ginger ale for those with less tolerance for heat.

4.Reed's Extra Ginger Brew. The "extra ginger" in this Reed's varietal takes the mouth-burn up a notch, but an ample amount of sugar prevents this ale from becoming too caustic. If you're suffering from an upset stomach, there's no better drink for settling it and scaring away the bacteria.

3.Old Jamaica Ginger Beer. I have no idea what sort of flavors "Old Jamaica" is supposed to evoke, but I do like what I taste in this style of ginger beer. Its medium spice and heavy carbonation make it an ideal mixer for a Dark and Stormy cocktail and can make up for the disadvantages of using lesser rums (re: not Gosling's).

2.Diet Gosling's Ginger Beer. No, that's not a typo. Having tried both the regular and the diet ginger beer from Gosling's, I can say with full confidence that the latter is actually hotter and more refreshing than the former. Something about the lack of real sweeteners must highlight the ginger elements of this brew and make its "zip" a shade better than the original version.

1. Blenheim #3 Red Cap Ginger Ale. With its ability to create a Class A conflagration in your mouth, Blenheim Red Cap Ginger Ale easily blows other ginger sodas out of the water, as well as disproves the assertion that ginger ales are inherently less spicy than ginger brews. Although I don't have a natural predilection for foods and drinks that make me tear up as I consume them, I must say I found the strong scorch of Blenheim's ginger ale to be remarkably invigorating. It's the perfect aperitif for a "hot" supper of Malaysian or Indian food.

Market Watch

2013 Houston Fall Produce Guide
What to buy and when to buy it.

Molly Dunn

Say goodbye to summer squash, watermelon, tomatoes and cucumbers, and say hello to pumpkins, winter squash, citrus and dark leafy greens.

Fall is here, and that means it's time to begin using season-appropriate fruits and vegetables. As Houstonians we are fortunate, because there's a lot of great produce being grown on Texas farms. And now is the time to buy the bounty: sweet potatoes for your casserole, pears for your tart and much more. With assistance from Urban Harvest Market managers Tyler Horne and Libby Kennedy and the Kirby Whole Foods Market's Andrew DeYoung and Charles Perez, we have created a guide to show you which produce will be in season this fall and when you can expect to buy it.

In markets now you'll find a variety of ­apples. This year, Whole Foods Market will sell more than 25 different types of apples. ­DeYoung says the chain wanted to go big on apples with exotic flavors, like the pink pearl — a small, vibrant specimen that tastes like a pink SweeTart. Other popular ones, such as Honeycrisp, Granny Smith and Gala, will be available as well.

If you want pears, grab them now, because their season is almost over. Grocery stores and farmers' markets alike are selling a variety of the versatile fruits, including Anjou, Bartlett, Asian and Red Crimson. Expect blood oranges in early November, and Meyer lemons closer to December.

Winter squash have a long shelf life, so even though they won't be in season much longer, you can stock up on spaghetti squash, acorn squash and butternut squash for use in the coming months.

Purchase creamer peas now and store them in the freezer to enjoy throughout the rest of fall and in the coming winter months. They will be available through October.

In October, expect to find lots of dark leafy greens, such as kale, mustard greens and Swiss chard, in your produce aisle. Kennedy says that people have started moving away from mustards and are seeking leafy greens with milder flavor. Collard greens are being harvested now, and in the coming weeks persimmons, kumquats and pomegranates will be ready to purchase. Broccoli, cauliflower, beets, cranberries and grapefruit should also be on your mind (and menus), because they will become available in late October.

Sweet potatoes are best now through November, so you can make your favorite sweet potato pie or casserole for holiday meals.

And when you're at the table, remember to thank your local farmer.


Become bewitched by Strega, deliciously.

Nicholas L. Hall

When I was a kid, I was scared of Tomie dePaola. I'm not entirely certain why, but something about the thick line-drawn characters and heavy-handed, morality-play narratives in his children's books was deeply unsettling to my eight-year-old self. Strega Nona, in particular, terrified me. Even the words, first read to me by the Italian grandmother of a family friend, had an air of menace. The rolling, aborted t-r sound; the elongated oooooo...I shivered a little bit even when merely pronouncing it in my head; those languid sounds seemed like witchcraft. Maybe that's why it took me so long to come around to Strega.

Liquore Strega (Italian for "witch") has been produced in Benevento, Italy, since the mid-1800s, and is typically regarded as a digestif. It's easy to lump Strega, an herbal ­liqueur, in with others of its ilk, like Benedictine and Chartreuse. That being said, the more I drink of each, the more I notice how different they are. With its flavors of mint, juniper and fennel, Strega comes across with a cooler profile, while Chartreuse is aggressive and hot and Benedictine smooth and warm. You can substitute one for the other in recipes, but the character of the resulting drink will change somewhat ­substantially.

Don't let the "cool profile" thing fool you, though; Strega is powerful stuff. At 80 proof, it packs a wallop, matched by its heady herbal flavors and significant, slightly bitter finish. Unlike a lot of liqueurs, it contains enough flavor to match its sweetness, allowing it to stand up in a drink as a proper ingredient, rather than just as a sweetener, so long as you balance its sweetness.

Because of its aggressive character, Strega can go in a lot of different directions. You can embrace its dark magic, pairing it with big, bold flavors, or you can lighten it, with citrus, for example, both taming and highlighting its wily charms. With some consideration, you can do both of these at once, and that's what I did with the

Last Call for More Witches

1.5 oz Mezcal

.75 oz Strega

.75 oz Lime Juice

.25 oz Maraschino Liqueur

Combine all ingredients in mixing glass, add ice, shake and double-strain into a coupe glass. Garnish with a wide strip of lime peel.

With its strong herbal notes, Strega helps to highlight the vegetal character of the mezcal and provides a nice framework for its smoky undertones. Mezcal is a big flavor, and can easily dominate a drink. Here, the Strega is no second fiddle, each one of those 70 herbs and spices making its intriguing presence known. The lime juice keeps things from getting too heavy, lightening and brightening all those assertive flavors, while the maraschino just adds a touch of funky richness. I didn't really think about it at the time, but this is kind of like a theoretical mezcal-based Last Word variant (thus the name), which makes perfect sense, even if it was accidental.

As I was settling on a "classic" take on Strega, I came across Portland bartender Junior Ryan's Strega Sour. I suppose it's not really fair to call it a classic (thus the quotes), but it's certainly a classic take, and a damn delicious drink. As with my creation above, Ryan makes use of both approaches to Strega cocktails, allowing it to stand on its own, and offsetting it with a hefty dose of acidity. The inclusion of honey syrup and egg white adds a luxuriously rich texture to the drink, and the Earl Grey's floral and citrus notes are highly complementary to the Strega.

Junior Ryan's Strega Sour

1.5 oz Gin

.75 oz Strega

.75 oz Lemon Juice

1 tsp Earl Grey Honey Syrup*

Egg White

4 drops Angostura Bitters (for garnish)

Add all ingredients but Angostura to a shaker and dry shake (without ice), then add ice and shake again. Double strain into a coupe glass. Add four drops of angostura in a square pattern, and drag a pick through them to create an attractive swirl of color.

*For the Earl Grey Honey Syrup: Prepare a strong tea and combine (hot) with honey at a 2:1 ratio of honey to tea. Allow to cool. I've been getting a lot of mileage out of the resulting syrup; it's delicious and versatile. Make up a batch and use it for old-fashioneds with varying base spirits for a fun game. Yes, I have a somewhat strange idea of fun.

All this talk of Strega has me wondering if Tomie dePaola sat down with a bottle when he was sketching those terrifyingly tubby characters of his. I like to think that he did, and I'd guess he had his neat. A crackling fire, a glass of Strega and the horror of millions of children, suddenly terrified of spaghetti. Witchcraft, I tell you.

Restaurant News

Openings and Closings
Bye-Bye Burger Guys, Hello Cloud 10 Creamery.

Molly Dunn

Even though it began with two surprising closing announcements, the rest of last week was pretty slow.

The Burger Guys announced that its downtown location had closed after being open for only one year. Owner Jake Mazzu and chef Brandon Fisch told CultureMap that they didn't believe in cursed locations until now — this building has housed four restaurants in seven years, according to Mazzu. He said that the high price of the burgers and the team's inability to serve neighboring office buildings contributed to the problems leading to the location's closure. Fortunately, the original location on Westheimer remains open.

Perhaps there's also a curse on Washington Avenue. Last week Hollister Grill on Washington shut its doors after being open for just six months. Now, Solea, which is on Shepherd near Washington, has announced that it is closing so the owners can rebrand the restaurant. Solea opened 14 months ago offering small plates meant to be shared, wine and live music. According to the Facebook announcement, the owners plan to change every aspect of the restaurant, including the name, but have said nothing specific about their plans.

Breath a sigh of relief, because Little Bitty Burger Barn is NOT closing, despite the Craigs­list ad stating that it was for sale. The owners told Eater they decided to stay where they are in Oak Forest.

Fellini Caffe officially opened on September 26, as noted by B4-U-Eat's weekly newsletter. The restaurant kicked things off with a happy hour.

Torchy's Tacos also opened on September 26. The new Heights location opened at 7 a.m. and offered free breakfast tacos throughout the morning. (If only the breakfast tacos were free every morning.)

Campo Azul Mexican Restaurant in Dickinson closed awhile ago, but the family has reopened the restaurant in Pasadena. B4-U-Eat mentions that the newly established restaurant has also added breakfast to its menu.

Eater reported that Cloud 10 Creamery had a soft opening in Rice Village on September 22, so the ice cream company finally has a brick-and-mortar location. Since the 22nd, Cloud 10 Creamery has been open for limited hours in the evening to serve a variety of classic and new flavors, including chamomile, dulce de leche and black-sesame milk chocolate.

We reported two weeks ago that Tacos A Go-Go would take over the current La Fen­dee location to open a third taco restaurant, but according to Eater the deal is not set in stone. ­Tacos A Go-Go owner Jeff Roeske posted a statement on Facebook to clear up any ­confusion. He says nothing has been made ­official.

Noodles & Company opens its first Houston-area location in The Woodlands on Monday, September 30. The starch-heavy restaurant serves just about any and every type of noodle — hearty bowls of mac and cheese, penne pasta with spicy tomato cream sauce and classic Pad Thai.

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