What Should You Do With Your Canned Foods After the Expiration Date?

Daisy Luther
By Daisy Luther April 8, 2016 18:25

What Should You Do With Your Canned Foods After the Expiration Date?

The winches strained and squealed and gradually the steamboat Bertrand was excavated from the silt and sand of the Missouri River and brought to the surface. The year was 1968. The Bertrand, a shallow-draft riverboat, had caught a snag north of Omaha, Nebraska and sank on April 1, 1865. The vessel was carrying goods to the gold camps in Montana and over 10,000 cubic feet of cargo were covered in the salvage effort – clothes, tools and medicine.

And plenty of canned foods including dried beef, oysters, peaches, mustard from France, and assorted brandied fruits. In 1974 a selection of the food from the hold of the Bertrand was sent to the National Food Processors Association for testing. The appearance of the fruits and vegetables and meats was somewhat gnarly, it was not a taste sensation and most of the nutritional value had long since evaporated but the scientists concluded the edibles were 100 percent safe to eat. There was no trace of microbial growth whatsoever.

Steamboat Bertrand Exhibit

And you are worried about the expiration date on the canned goods in your pantry?

Related: How To Preserve Beef in Glass Jars

What Makes Canned Food Unsafe to Consume?

food consumers eat - contamination.There is only one thing that will impact the safety of the food consumers eat – contamination. The inside of a sealed can is a sterile environment. No air equals no microbes equals no harm to the food. The natural process of decay will sap the vitamins and savoriness of the contents but the food will carry no harmful diseases.

Not all food reacts the same way to its canned incarceration, however. High-acid foods – tomatoes, citrus and other fruits – do not support food poisoning bacteria in any conditions and the offending germs will shortly die in such an environment. Low-acid foods – mushrooms, meats, green beans – typically receive a zap of sterilizing heat before canning. So, if faced with a can of food of unknown origins and age the higher the acid the safer the contents.

infection by bacteriaA compromised can will be cause for concern. Any dents or damage in a can’s exterior may be an indication of seal issues. Any air that may seep into the interior can lead to disease-causing infection by bacteria. If a can is bulging or leaking it should be disposed of without consideration.

Fortunately there is no reason to worry about a can’s history before consuming its contents. That is because nature has provided each and every one of us with the best arbiter of a food’s safety available – our reliable senses. If food from a newly opened can looks rancid or smalls bad do not eat it, regardless of any date stamped on its lid.

Related: How the Early Pioneers Preserved Food and What They Ate

So What Should I Know about Expirations Dates?

The first thing you should about expiration dates know is where they come from in the first place. And that is not from the federal government or any consumer watchdog agency. Unless you are buying infant formula the federal government has no interest in dating food – and dates on baby formula are only concerning nutritional quality, not safety. Some 20 state governments meddle in the expiration date business but that is again about food quality and not safety. And they are not issuing expiration dates but mandating that they are included on packaging.

The expiration dates are provided by manufacturers. And what exactly is “expiring?” There are actually two different guidelines consumers will encounter with canned food, a “sell by date” and a “use by” or “best by” date:

1 – “Sell by” date. This date is provided by manufacturers for the benefit of retailers. It is a suggestion – and only a suggestion – as to when the product should be removed from shelves. It is the manufacturer’s recommendation of when the product is at peak quality. With that date stamped prominently on a container the supermarket is obliged to remove the product or risk being sued should something go wrong – even though the contents are perfectly safe. That is why stores will throw out voluminous amounts of perfectly good food and sell products at deeply discounted prices when the ominous deadline looms.

2 – “Use by” date. This date is the manufacturer’s suggestion to the consumer of how long the product will be at peak quality. After that, the cookies may not be as crisp or the fruit salad as bright but the food is still fine to eat. It is the “use by” date that is the source of so many domestic squabbles as food lingers in pantries months and years beyond its supposed point of perfection.

How Do the Manufacturers Determine These Dates?

cannedFoodAgain there are no rules and regulations on issue form any government agency. Instead, there are test kitchens and laboratory scrutiny and taste tests with panels of volunteers all paid and administered by the manufacturers of the products themselves.What does that mean to consumers? Well, there are no ways to know when a can is plucked off a supermarket shelf how rigorous these tests have been before any date is stamped on the can. Or if any method beyond pure guesswork was employed at all.

The date could be conservative, to be “on the safe side” of consumption for quality. Or a date may come from a formula for production that was used years ago. As Bill Murray reminded us in Ghostbusters, “It’s more of a guideline than a rule.”

So What Should You Do With Your Canned Foods After the Expiration Date?

Eat Up. The food is almost certainly fine, especially if only a reasonable amount of time has passed from any dates arbitrarily imposed on the package. If you want to live by a date on a can the United States Department of Agriculture says that high-acid canned goods should be good (and this is quality, not safety) for 18 months and everything else has a shelf life of 5 years.

It is estimated that Americans throw ten cents of every dollar’s worth of food into the trash. That’s works out to over $1,000 worth of eats per family – most of it still perfectly fine to consume – each year. Not only is that an unnecessary bite out of the personal pocketbook but food is a principle component of landfills and contributor to methane that is warming the planet. Not to mention all the fossil fuels and resources that were squandered to produce the food. It’s best for your wallet, it’s best for the planet – eat it.

Food-stockpiling-for-long-term-disasterKeep Them Stored. Canned goods will not last forever. A long time, yes, but not forever. You should probably eat everything you buy sometime in your lifetime. But you can maximize the shelf life of cans by minimizing temperature fluctuations. A steady environment of between 50 and 70 degrees is ideal but whatever you can provide avoid excessive heat and freezing.
And the drier the better. Moisture can begin the deterioration of aluminum of tin cans and will also contribute to mold and bacteria should the contents ever be exposed to oxygen. Sunlight will heat the contents and also negatively affect the shelf life of cans. It is not happenstance that people have stored food in cool, dry places for hundreds of years.

Compost. Since the food is likely still good to eat it will make a fine compost. Even if the canned goods have some preservatives or other chemicals the aerobic compost microbes will make short work of these and any other small contaminants. This also applies to any potentially spoiled food in a bulging or dented can.
Depending on your composting situation it is advisable to toss the canned food contents towards the center of the pile to minimize the temptation to rodents and other scurrying animals from scoring an easy meal. You can also dig a trench, dump the food into the ground, and cover it up with dirt.

food_driveDonate. Enlightened food banks will accept cans with expired dates – up to a point. Do not expect any food bank to take anything. Damaged and bulging cans will never be accepted. Others won’t accept any food beyond the package date. Check with your local charities for instructions; many have arrived at a policy regarding expiration dates.

Sell. Some people believe the best way to explode the food expiration myth is to commercialize it. Doug Rauch, once a president of Trader Joe’s supermarket chain owned by the German family trust of Theo Albrecht, has proposed a solution for the food that accounts for 40 percent of trash that winds up in America’s garbage. He calls it “Daily Table” and his business model is to create and deliver nutritious and affordable quick-eat meals from all of the “expired” food in grocery stores that can be obtained with deep discounts or for free.
Many grocery stores are already integrated with food banks and shelters but much of that food can not be dumped or passed on because of liability issues. Entrepreneurs are increasingly coming up with schemes to churn this daily dump of food into money-making enterprises. Some day soon they may be looking to buy back canned food in private pantries.

Recycle canned foodRecycle. You can open the cans, wash them out and recycle the metal. This conscientious act does require some care, especially if you have damaged cans and jars. There are even government white papers dispensed just to outline the detoxification process involved in disposing of the contents of unsafe home canned foods.
At the very least wear latex gloves and be ready to attack any spillage with a good bleach solution. The potential botulinum toxin can be dangerous if it contacts the skin, not just when it is ingested. But when the cans are emptied and rinsed the metal containers can be safely recycled.

Toss Them. In economics it is called “sunk costs.” You have already spent the money and the salvage value of the purchase is so diminished that there is nothing left to do but throw the cans out. You may want to double up on the plastic garbage bags to be certain the cans do not break out and break open on the way to their final resting place in a landfill.

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Daisy Luther
By Daisy Luther April 8, 2016 18:25
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22 Comments

  1. don April 8, 20:03

    Sell them to “Preppers” and survivalists for $.50 on the dollar all day long.

    Reply to this comment
  2. Softballumpire April 9, 12:48

    Hold on to it for the visibility factor. Marauders during a SHTF scenario won’t take the time to pillage what is concealed when they have the visible easily accessible. As is the norm in our society–instant gratification–no one is likely to check dates. If you have already bugged out, pillagers are less likely to dismember your domicile seeking food when you have left such a visible bounty.

    Reply to this comment
  3. Gypsylady April 9, 13:33

    I have been eating rotated foods from 2012-2103. Some of this included tomatoes. I have eaten beets that were 10 yrs old, and taste was not diminished. I have only had a can or two of tomatoes, one can of evaporated milk, and one jar of mushroom gravy go bad in a 4-6 yr span after the dates. Food not used after the best by date is just wasted IMHO.

    Reply to this comment
  4. Illini Warrior April 9, 13:51

    Obvious – if you have the storage room – keep it – if nothing else use it for a payment to any raiders that come your way … they aren’t looking for a fight if avoidable – food will satisfy them initially ….

    Reply to this comment
  5. mophead April 9, 15:46

    If a can isn’t bulging, rusty or damaged, it stays on my shelf. When I think I might eat the product, I see how it looks and smells. It the can spurts when opening, it gets tossed. I regularly eat foods that are well past expiration, and not just canned goods. Just last week I enjoyed a package of Knorr side dish that expired in 2011. I’ve also found canisters of raisins will keep for several years after opening.

    Reply to this comment
  6. MSGT Rock April 10, 00:52

    When I went to military basic training in the late 70’s we went on a field training exercise. This was before MRE’s and we were given “C” rations for a couple of meals. The dates stamped on the olive drab cans were from 1958-1961, older than most of us. We were hungry and ate the food with no ill effects, there was lots of salt, sugar and fat in the food, but it actually tasted decent. Exercise good judgement like the article says about canned food, and use the expiration date only as a suggestion because it will likely be good for many years after.

    Reply to this comment
    • OhSoTired April 13, 00:41

      Also went thru Basic in late 70’s–79 to be exact–when your hungry that 1959 packaging date didn’t mean anything–crackers were more than a tad stale and the john wayne bars were at best horridly waxy tasting AND I never could gut the green eggs and ham , lol–all the rest of it warmed up on the exhaust manifold of the old jeeps tasted pretty good. Bottom line is the date doesn’t mean anything–if it don’t stink to high heaven it fine.

      Reply to this comment
    • Bob G April 23, 15:56

      You’re making me get all misty eyed. And the four pack of cigs and the Chiclet gum. Life was good.

      Reply to this comment
    • J3H February 17, 21:00

      When I was Army, grunt 66-68, our c-rats were dated 1943 and 44!!! Although a lot of the guys didn’t like and discarded some of the items, I took what they didn’t want, humped it, and I NEVER was hungry. Matter of fact, when they finally were hungry enough to eat it, I even made a little money selling it back to ’em, as my fee for humpin’ it for ’em!!!

      Reply to this comment
  7. DrShot April 10, 04:39

    “There is only one thing that will impact the safety of the food consumers eat – contamination.”

    …such as the crap within the plastic liners the insides of most contemporary cans are lined with. Eat food with potentially leached “junk” or starve, no choice at all, yet still worth a thought.

    Reply to this comment
  8. Mar April 11, 15:50

    As a kid Mom bought and stored “sale” items and home canned food in a room in the cellar back east. Stuff was rotated, new in back older in front, even before dates on items. Many items were there many, many years. We were taught to use our eyes and noses. Puffy cans tossed, items look or smell bad, they too were tossed. We in America waste so much food it makes me sick. I am from a BIG family and food was rationed and hunger a normal condition. Even our senior years, none of us are substantially overweight and none are obese.
    There was no free food at school! I see all these kids getting free breakfasts or lunches and a great percentage of the food gets thrown out. They don’t like it!!! Trust me IF they were truly hungry, they would eat it and I would be happy these programs exist.
    However, the majority of AMERICAN’S have no real idea what hunger feels like, yet, how to appreciate what they have, eat responsibly, much less know how to cook from scratch. That’s why obesity is epidemic here. Sadly they will find out soon! (I’m born-raised in USA)

    Reply to this comment
  9. Tony April 16, 14:14

    What about anaerobic bacteria like botulism?

    Reply to this comment
  10. skinney January 9, 19:57

    personally the green eggs and ham was my favorite. I’ve eaten many 10 year old canned goods with no illnesses, and I save the bulging cans to give to the riff-raff that comes to kill, steal, and destroy!

    Reply to this comment
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