A Prepper’s Guide to Storing Canned Goods SAFELY

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by Sandra D. Lane

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

About the Author

Sandra D. Lane

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

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