Sell-By Date, Schmell-By Date: Where to Find the Cheapest Groceries in Town

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Eating Our Words recently became acquainted with and enamored with Capital Sales, a "scratch-and-dent" grocery store on the corner of Almeda and Binz. The sign out front declares discounts to 30 to 60 percent on a wide variety of goods, and once inside, you discover it's no lie. We love to stock up on their 20-cent Jumex fruit nectars there. We mix it with Topo Chico mineral water, which, at 50 cents a bottle, can't be found any cheaper anywhere else.

Capital Sales is also strong in the coffee, jam, cereal, sauce/condiment, and canned goods departments, but it doesn't offer much in the way of meat or produce, and there is no alcohol, as near as we can tell. There are some interesting items in the frozen food department - we stocked up on pot-stickers and spring rolls at a ridiculously low price. (The only meat Capital Sales peddles is frozen.)

They also sell non-food products like shampoo, toilet paper, and feminine hygiene products, at the same discount you'll find on the food.

But if you look closely enough, you'll notice that a good portion of the items are past their sell-by dates, often by weeks or months. As a person who has been living off this stuff for weeks now, shouldn't I be dead by now?

Hardly, says City of Houston Health Department spokeswoman Cathy Barton.

"Sell-by dates are put on there by the manufacturers to rotate stock. There is no law or even guidance related to sell-by dates, other than for infant food, which may lose vitamin potency over time. But food such as chips - they may lose freshness or flavor, but they do not lose wholesomeness by being past the date."

"Some people put a 'made-on' date, some people put a 'sell-by date,' some people put a 'use-by' date," adds Patrick Key, who is both the bureau chief of the City of Houston's Consumer Health Services' Food Inspection Program and a guy who answers the phone with the salutation "Start talkin.'" "There's no real standard, so they can put whatever they want on there. Any store can sell out-of-date merchandise, but you will probably see more of it at a salvage store than at a normal store."

Meat is a whole 'nother ball of wax, says Barton. You have to take a leap of faith with it, no matter if you shop at Capital Sales or Central Market. "If you look at the date on some meat, you still have to trust the store that they have kept that meat in an appropriate condition. For instance, you could get a meat that is dated for two weeks away from now, and if it was not kept at a proper temperature, then that meat would be bad, even if the date was good. Or you could by meat that was dated a year ago, and that meat would be fine as long as it was kept frozen."

Then there are all those dented cans on the shelves at Capital Sales. Isn't the food in those things a mortal danger? Shouldn't these canned goods be more accurately termed "canned bads"? Only in certain instances, Key says. "Side dents are okay," he says. "But if they have a dented rim, we would make them throw them away."

And then there is this can of Wolf Brand Chili I found there. Though the sell-by date is still some 18 months down the road, note the sickly green pallor of the chili on the label...A can that promises guacamole-colored chili is what Key calls "distressed merchandise." "It's still edible, but people couldn't sell it at top prices at a regular store," he says.

With the recession and all, we're not into judging books by their covers, or cans of Wolf Brand chili by their labels, no matter how lethal they may look.

Other such finds are available at any of Houston's salvage operators:

Capital Sales Damaged Freight Groceries #2, 4663 Telephone Rd.
Houston Foodco Incorporated, 5601 Navigation Blvd.
Jimmy Poole Grocery, 11658 Homestead Rd.


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