A Prepper’s Guide to Storing Canned Goods SAFELY

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Even though many of us process our own goods for long-term food storage, we also supplement our pantries with canned foods from stores.

Sometimes it can be cheaper, especially when there’s a sale. Sometimes we supplement with items from stores that we don’t know how to can (or can’t safely can at home). And sometimes it’s items that are hard to come by or aren’t grown locally. As well, storebought canned goods have a longer shelf-life than our home-canned goodies, so there’s definitely a place for them in our stockpiles

Whatever the reason, there are certain things we need to remember and keep an eye on for safety reasons.

‘Best By’ dates are still relevant.

There’s a lot of contention regarding the expiration dates on canned foods.

Frequently expiration and ‘Best By’ dates are confused with each other, making things even worse. The ‘Best By’ date on any product is when the manufacturer estimates the product will remain at the best quality possible; like the best color, texture, smell, and taste. This date isn’t a hard line as to when the contents spoil, though. Neither are the expiration dates on commercially canned items.

Obviously, things that must be kept cold, like store-bought raw meats, dairy, cheese, and eggs are exceptions, as are most foods that were previously sealed. What really makes those dates important, though, is the fact they become guidelines for after you’ve bought them and stored them away, allowing for accurate rotation of goods.

Most expiration dates on canned foods can generally be extended.

Expiration dates on canned goods are, again, not hard lines for when a product spoils, and can usually be extended for a few years. In fact, expiration dates on canned goods are being replaced by ‘Best By’ or “Best if Used By” dates.

“Expiration” dates are rarely found on canned food. The codes vary from manufacturer to manufacturer and usually include coding for time and place of canning. Many canned products now have a “for best quality use by” date stamped on the top or bottom of the can. The general rule of thumb is that canned food has a shelf life of at least two years from the date of purchase.source (emphasis mine)

The Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Food Marketing Institute are hoping to prevent food waste and are advising major food manufacturers/retailers to stop using expiration and sell-by dates unless food safety is involved. One might wonder how they can encourage the practice of NOT using expiration dates.

This article has more information on these dates.

There is no federal law regarding expiration dates.

Product dating is not required by federal law, except for infant formula.

“The key exception to this general rule is for infant formula products. These products are required to bear a “Use By” date, up to which the manufacturer has confirmed that the product contains no less than a minimum amount of each nutrient identified on the product label, and that the product will be of an acceptable quality.” source

“For meat, poultry, and egg products under the jurisdiction of the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), dates may be voluntarily applied provided they are labeled in a manner that is truthful and not misleading and in compliance with FSIS regulations.” source

So, if there is no requirement, why do they do it?

Money. If consumers buy a product that isn’t as fresh or tasty as another brand, they switch to the other brand. I certainly would. So those dates are voluntarily put on there to keep consumers coming back.

“The labels, you see, don’t mean what they appear to mean. Foods don’t “expire.” Most foods are safe to eat even after that “sell by” date has passed. They just may not taste as good, because they’re not as fresh anymore. Companies use the labels to protect the reputation of their products – they want consumers to see and consume their food in as fresh a state as possible. But those dates often have the perverse effect of convincing over-cautious consumers to throw perfectly good food into the trash.” source

Even so, we can use those dates to organize and rotate our food stores.

A warning about botulism

Metal, factory sealed cans, won’t shatter but can be bent and dented, and some seals on the cans are already compromised with pre-scored pull tabs. Compromised seals and containers can mean Clostridium botulinum.

Clostridium botulinum is the bacterium that produces dangerous botulism toxins under low-oxygen conditions, and it is one of the most lethal substances we know of. These toxins block nerve functions and can lead to respiratory and muscular paralysis, effectively killing a human being. Foodborne botulism is rare in developed countries but is caused by consuming improperly processed, canned, preserved, or fermented foods. This bacterium can exist in any improperly canned items, whether that be home-canned or commercially canned.

C. botulinum is an anaerobic bacterium, meaning it can only grow in the absence of oxygen. Foodborne botulism occurs when C. botulinum grows and produces toxins in food prior to consumption. C. botulinum produces spores and they exist widely in the environment including soil, river and sea water. The growth of the bacteria and the formation of toxin occur in products with low oxygen content and certain combinations of storage temperature and preservative parameters. This happens most often in lightly preserved foods and in inadequately processed, home-canned or home-bottled foods.” source

It’s absolutely not worth the risk to eat food that could be tainted with botulism. It’s very serious, can cause lifelong after-effects, and even death. When disposing of suspect food, be sure to put it where animals cannot get to it, as they’re also susceptible to botulism.

How to prevent getting botulism

First, remember to examine all containers before ever buying them. Do not purchase unsealed, cracked, or dented containers. Discard all containers and their contents that are bulging, leaking, cracked, or even dented – it’s not worth the cost.

Seriously consider multiple can openers instead of buying pre-scored cans of food with pop-top lids. You can’t see, smell, or taste botulism, but you can listen for the small release of air that should occur when you break the seal of your jar or can.

Lastly, avoiding letting foods, cooked or not, stay at room temperature for too long before refrigerating them, and strongly consider reheating leftovers to the sustained internal temp of 85 °C/185 °F.

Which storage method do you prefer, cans or jars? Or maybe both?

Are there particular foods you’re wary of purchasing or canning? Are there other requirements on your checklist for canned foods?

Related resources:

About Sandra

Sandra is a wife of 38 years, a mother of 3 awesome grown children, a published artist, photographer, fellow prepper, and animal advocate. She is a strong proponent of the Second Amendment, an avid gun owner, a woman of faith, and values honesty and loyalty above all else.

Sandra D. Lane

Sandra D. Lane

Sandra is a published artist, photographer, fellow prepper, and animal advocate.

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  • “storebought canned goods have a longer shelf-life than our home-canned goodies”

    I disagree. I have pressure canned tomatoes, green beans, chicken soup, couscous that are still good at 7 years after canning.

    Even in a cool, dark pantry, cans that are multi-years old will begin to corrode making their contents questionable, and potentially dangerous.

    Granted, my home canned tomato sauce is darkening after 8 years, so it’s going onto the compost pile, but tomatoes from the following year are still good and have a good appearance.

    • Hello! Yes, in the past this may have been true. Today the lid manufacturers (Ball, Mason, etc.) have changed their seals to deteriorate only after about one year of storage. This was a deliberate move on their part to hit all the preppers out there. This is why the author states sealed cans may actually provide longer shelf life than what you can “can” at home. Read up on the massive decrease in shelf life brought about by inferior jar seals.

      • RAFO, can you provide a like to what you are saying?

        As for our house , we store all home canned foods in our frig.

        OFF TOPIC: If ya’ll want to get a good Prepper movie for Christmas, get a DVD of the movie “The Reliant” very pro-gun/prepper/christian

      • When canning, once the jars are fully cooled, dip the sealing area in melted paraffin wax. It will add an additional layer of sealing, and may be recovered when the product is used.

      • I agree that there is not nearly as much of the edge-sealing material (whatever it is!) on the lids as there used to be. I do still use some of these (and yes, I sometimes re-use; if something doesn’t seal, we’ll either eat it right away, or I’ll re-process or freeze it). However–do check out the re-usable Tattler lids with rubber rings. They seem to last forever; most of mine have now been used multiple times, may take a little color from tomato recipes, but that’s all I notice.

        Beware, though, of cheap jars made in China (my experience was with some my DH brought home from Walmart!) I had the seals fail on nearly a whole canner load. As far as I could figure, it was because the edge/rim of the jar was rounded instead of nearly flat–not enough surface for the lid to “grab.” (I returned them and got my money back!)

    • When they changed the rubber formula a few years ago on the rubber seals, I went to ebay and bought 500 of the older canning lids. From experience, I know that the old seals will last for decades. I also experiment and have reused lids with success. Hope this gives some folks in armchairs, something to squawk about. I still buy new jars but, I will put on an older style lid on it. Problem solved.

      • Wish I had done that, we’re switching to the Tattler lids (except for raw-packed meats) as I’ve had multiple seal failures with the newer “disposable” seals and none with the Tattler lids.

  • We are now called ,”preppers” when growing up, we called it survival. Fall ,harvesting,grinding,canning,drying,butchering,smoking. Now we have food stores too ease,or completely erase these acts. That terrifies me. Like momma always said don’t put all your eggs in one basket. All it takes is one stubbed toe.

  • Besides the dates, I check my canned goods for any signs of rust around the outside edges too. I also press both ends of the cans inward. If the top and bottom ends do not move, then it is probably good to go. If there is a bulge, and you can move the end up and down, then air has gotten inside and the contents are no longer good. I find this happens in tuna cans more than any other type in my stash.

  • It’s true about the lids now only lasting one year. However, there are reusable lids that can be purchased and that will solve the one year issue. As far as how long home canned items last, well, we’ve used things we’ve canned from eight years ago and they’re perfectly fine.

  • On the contrary:

    Two studies, one by the Dept. Of Defense and one by the University of Michigan – showed that canned goods/food, are good from 20-30 years or more. Canned Tuna, soups, anything canned except tomato or acid based can last for a min of 20 years or more.

    1. A cargo ship that sunk in 1917, filled with canned goods, found that the canned food was still palatable and eatable after over 70 years, with only some few canned goods losing color, but all still retained all their protein, vitamins and minerals.

    2. In the 1980’s a warehouse in California was found to still contain large amouts of canned goods remaining from WWII. The canned goods were found to have kept all their integrity of color, vitamins, minerals, protein etc.

    Acid base foods, particularly those with tomato in them can be kept for approx. 5 years before being thrown out. But all cans should be inspected before eating.

  • Tattler reusable lids work great ! Also if you were really into survival you would have purchased lids 5 years ago !!!! This is a disposable society and filled with morons that don’t know anything !! I have been into this before there were “Labels ” added to all of the things associated with surviving ! I have meat that was canned 20 years ago and it is still great !? How could that be??? Because the fact that you keep it at low temps, nothing above 60 degrees! Also many people are scared when it comes to food consumption.
    There are several articles printed by universities where they found canned food that was 100 to 150 years old !!! Yes this is true, look it up ! One was sunk in the Allegheny river during the civil war. Food scientist checked it out and when determined it was safe they ate it !!!! They threw a party for staff & friends and feasted on food that was from the past century ! Don’t believe me look it up ! Also they have discovered food from ancient Egypt & Sumerian cultures that was thousands of years old – Still good !!!

    • You know that insulting people who are just starting is less than helpful, right?

      We recommend best practices on this website. 🙂 That isn’t to say you’re incorrect, of course.

  • I’ve eaten c-rations (government issued canned goods) that were 10+ years old at the time. Southeast Asia, Korea, and other nasty places. Plop the can into a pot of boiling water and in about 10 minutes, you have edible food. That was many years ago. I’m still alive. IMO, the “sell by” and “best by” “expiration” dates are just a marketing ploy to make you consume or throw out product and buy more. Nasty, dented or exploded cans don’t stay on my shelf. Many bad things can happen. But if it is a choice between cooking the dickens out of a can of beans, or going hungry, I’ll light a fire and take my chances…. Old dog and combat vet. Been there, done that. Care to ask what I’d eat when SHTF?

    • I have eaten MRE foods 14 years old. Still good. The powder cream, coffee and the heater are almost never good. But that darn cookie always seem fine.

      Sometimes I think when they find our civilization is gone they’ll still find our edible cookies.

  • I ate a canned organic soup 2 years after the expiration date several months ago. It didn’t quite taste FRESH like it should but still tasted fine. No off taste.

    Obviously, if it was no good I wouldn’t be writing this right now.

    BTW, I would recommend good hearty canned soup (not the Campell kind) as I was recovering from an illness (flu I think it was) and craved this kind of soup and it really helped me to revive and recover.

    Ever since that time I made sure to have several cans handy.

  • The problem with canned foods and long term storage is with canned tomato products or other high acid food which will eat through the can over time, also moisture causing cans to rust has been a problem. Now we put each can in a seal able sandwich bag, this protects them from moisture and if one leaks it will not rust nearby cans.

  • Beware of dipping your jars in parafin. What a mess to clean up ! Wax does not come off easily! The newer canning lids are thinner and have less rubber. Wall marts store brand is terrible! 2 of my canning friends and I used them and had bad results. We’ve all been canning for more than 20 years each. The Ball/Kerr seem to still be working ok. Like mentioned, acid foods in store cans can and do eat through the cans eventually. My home canned items do great as they are in glass.

  • While most metal cans are made a “tinplate” alloy, it would be worthwhile to read up on how they are made, just as all plastic bottles and liners are not t he same. See the Resin Identification Code.

    One summer I worked in a “lid” factory where the tops of metal cans are stamped out. The tops are then crimped onto the body of the can along with a sealing compound at the seam, and a fine spray of lacquer or enamel into the interior of the can. A reason not to cook from a metal can. The lid/body sealant can contaminate the can contents. For example, if when opening a beer can and it foams, it could mean it’s contaminated. There was always hexane solvent flying around.

    And, don’t forget to stock up on P-38 can openers, especially the larger P-51 “John Wayne” model for seniors. No need to abuse your trusty Ka-Bar knife or rub the can top on a concrete surface. I don’t like hand held or electrical can openers as they’re usually not cleaned as often as they should be. Make a game for kids to see how fast they then can use a P-38.

    Keep the metal can for various uses, i.e. cans partially filled with pebbles hung from a trip wire … just saying.

  • Can seal check. Clean top of can. Cover top with water inside of rim. With pointed opener gently push hole in lid watching the water. If it is pulled into can the vacuum seal was good and the food should be safe. If it bubbles the water the seal was bad so do not eat from that can.

  • One thing i have recently noted is rusting increases in areas of poor air circulation. Cans in my garage last much longer than cans in a storage shed where the door is closed most of the time.

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