Even if you’re not yet a prepper, you likely have at least some canned food goods on your shelf with an expiration date on them. Perhaps you have even taken up canning your own food. Either way, canned goods are a common staple. That is the case for good reason. However, do you really know the truth about canned food shelf life?
I’m surprised by how many people seem to have a deep trust of those “magical dates” on canned foods. But what are those dates anyway? What do they mean?
Myths to Debunk
Various Types of Canned Food Dates
Here, let’s debunk some of the myths that surround those dates on canned foods.
Commercial canned foods are generally “good” far beyond the dates stated. And, get this. In almost all cases, the dates stated on foods aren’t expiration dates anyway. Rather, they are “use by” dates.
The use-by dates on cans and packages serve to protect the reputation of the food. They have nothing to do with food safety, as the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s website  clearly states:
“Use-by” dates refer to best quality and are not safety dates. Even if the date expires during home storage, a product should be safe, wholesome and of good quality if handled properly.
Actually, except for infant formula, product dating is not even required  by federal regulations.
While they may not be required, generally you will see manufacturers use one of three types of dates on products. None of these is an expiration date. The dates used are:
- A “Sell-By” date, which simply tells the store how long to display the product for sale.
- A “Best if Used-By” date is what the manufacturer recommends for best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.
- A “Use-By” date is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality. The manufacturer of the product determines the date.
Of course, manufacturers have an incentive for consumers to purchase more food, so the temptation is there for them to recommend short-term dates to encourage more frequent purchases.
Long-Term Canned Goods Safety
Okay, you’re probably wondering how long canned foods remain safe. Am I right?
As it turns out, the answer is that canned foods are safe a lot longer than you think. Numerous studies show that foods are viable long after they were canned, or after the “expiration” of stamped dates.
For instance, a fascinating study published in the Journal of Food Science  reported on canned food that was analyzed from the Steamboat Bertrand, which sank over 100 years before, in 1865. The findings? National Food Processors Association (NFPA) chemists detected no microbial growth. Furthermore, they determined that the foods were as safe to eat as when they had been canned over 100 years earlier.
The chemists added that while significant amounts of vitamins C and A were lost, protein levels remained high, and all calcium values “were comparable to today’s products.”
A prepper’s remedy for the loss of vitamins is, of course, to simply store and rotate multi-vitamins in his prepping supplies. That’s what I do.
Truthfully, these studies don’t surprise me. Proper canning creates a vacuum that prevents microorganisms and air from entering the jar. It is these that would otherwise contaminate the contents. As long as the seal is good, the contents should be good, which is why I’m comfortable eating a jar of stew from my pantry, even if I canned it 20 years before.
We have two All American pressure canners  and use them to can all sorts of meats, stews, and vegetables. They are probably my most valued prepping item.
How To Determine Canned Food’s Safety
I pay no attention to those expiration dates. Instead, I look closely to ensure the seal hasn’t been compromised. Evidently authorities agree with this view. In a food safety fact sheet, Utah State University Food Safety Specialist, Brian Nummer wrote :
For emergency storage, canned foods in metal or jars will remain safe to consume as long as the seal has not been broken.
In yet another study, NFPA chemists also analyzed a 40-year-old can of corn found in the basement of a home in California. Again, the canning process had kept the corn safe from contaminants and from much nutrient loss. In addition, the chemists said the kernels looked and smelled like recently canned corn.
Canned Goods Good for Preppers
So as these scientific analyses show, canned foods are an excellent option for preppers. If all that’s true, when would you ever discard a can of food? It’s unlikely that you’ll ever be forced with the decision of whether or not to open a can that is in fact 40 years old. However, if it has been several years and you come across a can that got lost in the pantry, it should be fine to eat if its seal hasn’t been compromised, just as the above studies attest.
But what if the can is dented? Just as many people have tremendous belief in expiration dates, they also were led to believe that dented cans should be avoided or even discarded. It turns out that’s not usually the case.
The primary concern over dented cans is the very unlikely (but remotely possible) risk of botulism contamination. We will take a closer look at botulism in a bit. So if people are leery of dents due to the risk of botulism contamination, when are dents to be considered a problem?
While very small dents almost always present no problem, the more important issue is the location of the dent. A can with a sharp dent on either the top or side seam should probably be discarded, because seam dents can allow the introduction of harmful bacteria. The good news is that most dents occur harmlessly on the side. Unattractive? Yes. But unsafe? No. Even the USDA  agrees with this point when they say:
If a can containing food has a small dent, but is otherwise in good shape, the food should be safe to eat. Discard deeply dented cans. A deep dent is one that you can lay your finger into. Deep dents often have sharp points. A sharp dent on either the top or side seam can damage the seam and allow bacteria to enter the can. Discard any can with a deep dent on any seam.
What Is Botulism?
Botulism can be a deadly illness and is caused by various strains of the Clostridium bacterium. The bacteria thrive in low-oxygen environments (such as those in canned food) and produce a neurotoxin that can cause loss of muscle control. If left untreated, the illness can spread throughout the body, ultimately reaching the respiratory system.
Clearly botulism is to be avoided at all costs. But what are the odds that you can get botulism from canned food? I mean, do you know anyone who contracted botulism from commercially-canned food? Anyone?
How Common Is Botulism?
According to the CDC, an average of only 145 cases of botulism are reported in the U.S. each year. Of that, only 15 percent are the result of foodborne bacteria. Most botulism cases (65%) are infant botulisum, which is sometimes caused sometimes by feeding honey to infants. So, there are roughly 21 cases of foodborne botulism in the U.S. each year. Twenty-one out of over 300 million people, all of whom eat. As you can see, botulism is very, very rare. You should worry far more about dropping the canned food and breaking your toe.
Even in the very remote case of a bout with botulism, it certainly doesn’t mean death. Botulism can be treated at a hospital with antitoxins. In fact, in the past 50 years, the fatality rate from botulism has dropped from 50% to 3-5%. So, out of 21 cases, a three percent fatality rate would mean that one American may die roughly every two years from foodborne botulism. And one person every two years is about what we find. Just this past week, a 37-year old man from California died, reportedly  from eating nacho cheese contaminated with botulism.And two years ago a 54-year old person died  in Ohio at an April 2015 church pot-luck dinner. The likely culprit in that botulism outbreak that sickened more than 20 was potato salad made from home canned potatoes. And therein lies the problem with most cases of botulism.
While there are, on average, 21 foodborne cases of botulism per year, many are the result of improper home canning. Now, I don’t know for certain how the potatoes in that instance were canned but most likely not with a pressure canner, such as the All American 921 Of course, botulism is something to be aware of, but there are many more threats in your life worthy of your attention, like…oh…not having any food stored at all..
Whether you can food yourself or buy from the store, all vegetables (including potatoes), all meats, etc. are low acid foods. Low acid foods must be canned in a pressure canner rather than a water bath canner.
However, many “old timers” canned those foods in water bath canners and got away with it. You may tell their children (most of whom are rapidly becoming old-timers themselves) that the foods must be pressure canned. And they will likely retort “Well, my mother always did it this way, so I will too.”
I use a pressure canner for pretty much everything other than jams and jellies. This means we’d be comfortable eating our cans of homemade chili 20 years from now.
Other Signs Canned Foods Arent Safe
Of course, botulism is something to be aware of, but there are many more threats in your life worthy of your attention, like…oh…not having any food stored at all.
Other signs that you should check to ensure your canned foods are safe include:
- Make sure the can is not bulging. This occurs when harmful bacteria, such as that which causes botulism, enters and creates gas.
- If the can has rust near the seams, inspect carefully. But rust or dents do not affect the contents of the can as long as the can does not leak. If the can is leaking, however, or if the ends are bulged, the food should not be used.
- Be very cautious if the can spurts liquid or foam when opened. This is not a good sign.
- Finally, trust your senses. If the food is discolored, moldy, or smells bad or simply doesn’t smell as it should (canned fruit that doesn’t smell fruity), then toss it. It’s not worth the risk.
What Have We Learned?
- There are no expiration dates, nor are they required. Rather, there are suggested dates by the manufacturer of when to use the food by. And the manufactures want you to think the food won’t last long, so you’ll buy more.
- Canning is a very safe process that protects the food for a long time–over 100 years, if necessary. That’s a fact.
- Botulism is a concern but rarely a legitimate threat. Just use your eyes and nose to assess the food. If the can is bulging (as in the picture above), by all means dispose of it. It’s definitely not worth the risk. But if it merely has a shallow dent and the seam hasn’t been compromised, it will likely pass the eyes and nose test.
- It’s best, in my view, if you can the food yourself, for the simple reason that you don’t have to worry about dents. Glass jars don’t dent. If the seal on the top of the jar is good, the food is good. Another reason it’s best to can your own food is that you don’t have to worry about your canning jars being lined with bisphenol A (BPA), as many canned foods are, just as water bottles are. The BPA has been linked to a rapid rise in blood pressure . And chronic exposure has been associated with heart disease.  So get yourself a well-made pressure canner or borrow one from a friend. If you can’t grow food yourself, just buy some produce and meats from local farmers and start canning your own food. You won’t have to worry about BPA. You’ll know what’s in it, when it was canned, and you’ll learn a lifelong self-sufficiency skill.
SurvivalBlog Writing Contest
This has been another entry for Round 70 of the SurvivalBlog non-fiction writing contest . The nearly $11,000 worth of prizes for this round include:
- A $3000 gift certificate towards a Sol-Ark Solar Generator  from Veteran owned Portable Solar LLC. The only EMP Hardened Solar Generator System available to the public.
- A Gunsite Academy Three Day Course Certificate that is good for any one, two, or three day course  (a $1,195 value),
- A course certificate from onPoint Tactical for the prize winner’s choice of three-day civilian courses , excluding those restricted for military or government teams. Three day onPoint courses normally cost $795,
- DRD Tactical is providing a 5.56 NATO QD Billet upper  with a hammer forged, chrome-lined barrel and a hard case to go with your own AR lower. It will allow any standard AR-type rifle to have a quick change barrel, which can be assembled in less than one minute without the use of any tools and a compact carry capability in a hard case or 3-day pack (an $1,100 value),
- An infrared sensor/imaging camouflage shelter  from Snakebite Tactical in Eureka, Montana (A $350+ value),
- Two cases of Mountain House freeze-dried assorted entrees  in #10 cans, courtesy of Ready Made Resources (a $350 value),
- A $250 gift certificate good for any product  from Sunflower Ammo,
- Two cases of meals, Ready to Eat  (MREs), courtesy of CampingSurvival.com (a $180 value).
- A Model 175 Series Solar Generator  provided by Quantum Harvest LLC (a $439 value),
- A Glock form factor SIRT laser training pistol and a SIRT AR-15/M4  Laser Training Bolt, courtesy of Next Level Training, which have a combined retail value of $589,
- A gift certificate for any two or three-day class  from Max Velocity Tactical (a $600 value),
- A transferable certificate for a two-day Ultimate Bug Out Course  from Florida Firearms Training (a $400 value),
- A Trekker IV™ Four-Person Emergency Kit  from Emergency Essentials (a $250 value),
- A $200 gift certificate good towards any books published  by PrepperPress.com,
- A pre-selected assortment of military surplus gear  from CJL Enterprize (a $300 value),
- RepackBox is providing a $300 gift certificate to their site , and
- American Gunsmithing Institute (AGI) is providing a $300 certificate good towards any of their DVD training courses .
- A Royal Berkey water filter, courtesy of  Directive 21 (a $275 value),
- A custom made Sage Grouse model utility/field knife  from custom knife-maker Jon Kelly Designs, of Eureka, Montana,
- A large handmade clothes drying rack , a washboard, and a Homesteading for Beginners DVD, all courtesy of The Homestead Store, with a combined value of $206,
- Expanded sets of both washable feminine pads and liners , donated by Naturally Cozy (a $185 retail value),
- Two Super Survival Pack seed collections , a $150 value, courtesy of Seed for Security, LLC,
- Mayflower Trading is donating a $200 gift certificate for homesteading appliances ,
- Montie Gear is donating a Y-Shot Slingshot and a $125 Montie gear Gift certificate .,
- Two 1,000-foot spools of full mil-spec U.S.-made 750 paracord  (in-stock colors only) from www.TOUGHGRID.com (a $240 value), and
Round 70 ends on May 31st, so get busy writing and e-mail  us your entry. Remember that there is a 1,500-word minimum, and that articles on practical “how to” skills for survival have an advantage in the judging.