Estimated reading time: 15 minutes
Some of us stockpile, some of us don’t. Either way we have food in our pantries. For someone who has a significant food stockpile it’s always a question of balance. How long can we store foods and safely eat them is a constant juggling act.
This is especially true with foods we buy from the grocery store. There are survival foods that have been specifically processed and packaged for long-term food storage. Those usually aren’t a problem.
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It’s the everyday foods we keep in our kitchen pantries and refrigerator that can leave us scratching our heads when the stores are closed after a disaster, and the power is out.
When it comes to food storage, the standard mantra is “Eat what you store and store what you eat.” That all sounds good but it’s not easy and how many of us really do that with long-term food storage? Even when we give it our best effort, some foods sit and sit sometimes for years.
And when it comes to the kitchen, how many foods have been hiding for years on a back shelf or forgotten while tucked away into refrigerator drawer? It’s fair to do an inventory and throw out foods that seem past their prime or expired but even then, are they really unsafe to eat?
In an emergency when foods in the kitchen pantry and refrigerator might become the only reliable source of food, it can be a dilemma when we see a can of something is past its “best-by” date or wonder if that open jar of honey is still safe to eat.
Even if the only foods you have in storage are in a kitchen cabinet, it can be cause to pause when we see that can of sardines has been in there more than a year.
Some Expiration Facts
Refrigerated foods like milk, meat, dairy and other fresh products in the refrigerated case at the store all carry calendar dates. For the most part, those dates are for real. After the calendar date there’s no guarantee the food will taste as good and they may not be safe to eat days after that date. It’s why you see people reaching for a gallon of milk in the back of the refrigerated case, or digging down to get that pound of sausage from the bottom of the meat case.
Even then, there are some refrigerated foods that are surprisingly resilient past their calendar dates. We’ll explore some specific steps you should take to assess the quality and safety of any foods in a bit, but in an emergency even some refrigerated foods past the calendar dates printed on the package can be safe to eat.
The Mystery of “By” Dates
There’s another set of dates that show up on many packaged goods that aren’t quite as clear as a calendar date. Those are foods sold on the shelf in bottles, can and boxes. Few are marked with expiration dates or calendar dates. Most have those mysterious “Best by” dates.
Complicating everything are other dates marked as “Use-by,” and “Sell-by.”
There have been efforts to clarify expiration dates on food labeling going back to 2016 but to this day the food industry has opposed it, and the bills keep getting mired in congressional committees and thwarted by food industry lobbyists.
Here’s what we’re left with:
“Best by” and “Use by”
These are dates set by the manufacturer. It’s a measure of how long the food manufacturer thinks the food will remain at its peak of freshness. It has nothing to do with food spoilage or food safety. It doesn’t even have anything to do with nutrition. It’s how long the manufacturer thinks the food will have the “best” taste.
The sell by date is purely a food industry tool designed to guide retailers in their stocking and marketing efforts. It’s all about product turnover in the store and trade deals. There have been efforts to remove the dates or code them so only retailers can understand them without misleading consumers. For some reason food manufacturers and retailers seem to want people to throw out more food and buy more as a result.
The only packaged goods to carry a clearly worded date titled “expiration” is baby formula. If it is expired, don’t buy it or throw it out if it’s in the pantry. This is one of the examples where food stored at home that is past a clearly labeled expiration date should be thrown out. In fact, baby formuls is the only example of a clear and specific expiration date for food.
And It’s Not Just About Dates on the Package
Another important consideration is how the food has been stored. If any stored food has been subject to high temperatures or wide temperature fluctuations, the odds of spoilage from bacterial growth and mold increase.
Freezing is always the best storage solution for food safety, but foods that have been stored in a dark space unexposed to direct sunlight with temperatures ranging from room-temperature and lower should be stable.
The quality of the package is also important. Cans do best followed by food in jars or bottles. Foods packaged in cardboard boxes can be subject to moisture although most have sealed interior bags made from plastic or wax paper.
If a can is dented or rust appears around the lid on a bottle or jar, the food in that package is most likely compromised. If a bottle or jar has been opened it’s another signal that the food should be evaluated. Once a package is opened none of the dates are relevant but it may be safe to eat depending on the product. We’ll get into the list later.
How to Know if Food Past a “By” Date is Still Good
There are some standard tests you can do at home to assess the quality and general safety of foods stored at home. This is worth doing regardless of some of those “by” dates, and especially important with any foods that have been home canned.
The standard advice related to the quality and safety of any foods in storage is “If in doubt, throw it out.” Desperate times may tempt us eat it anyway, but the last thing anyone wants is a serious case of food poisoning or a gastro-intestinal illness during a disaster.
Here are some of the quick tests recommend by the USDA and the FDA to evaluate food at home:
- The first step is to look at the food. How does it look? Is the color consistent with your expectations or have the green peas in the can turned grey?
- Is there any sign of mold growing on the top of the food? That’s always a bad sign. Then again, the stuff that makes blue cheese blue is mold.
- Have the ingredients changed shape or appear deteriorated in anyway? If the pasta appears swollen or if the rice is cracked it may be a good reason to think twice.
- And again, does the package appear damaged in any way?
- If it smells bad –it’s bad. Smells can range from a moldy, mildew smell to smells ranging from septic to just an off odor. If there’s anything about the smell that doesn’t seem right, throw it out. If you open a canned or bottled product and the smell is off –it’s best to get rid of it.
- Then again, some smells and aromas concentrate in the package. If milk smells sour it’s well past its prime, but sour cream and cottage cheese often concentrate sour aromas in the package.
- The final test is the taste test. If it tastes awful, don’t eat it. However, if it doesn’t have quite the taste intensity you expected if may just be the effect of time affecting the taste. Foods stored for long periods will often lose some flavor as well as nutritional value. They’re still safe to eat and will retain some level of nutrition but may need a little seasoning. In an emergency you can’t be too picky although you should always be careful.
Foods That Should Be Safe
Some of these you may have heard of before. Some may be a bit surprising. Here’s the list to consider:
Canned foods are the food storage champs when it comes to grocery store foods. If the cans are intact and not dented or rusted, it’s a good bet the food inside will be safe to eat long after any of the “by” dates. Do the tests and know that it may need a little seasoning.
These are foods that are packaged and stored dry. If they have been protected from oxygen and moisture and stored properly (Mylar bags are best) they have surprisingly long shelf lives often measured in decades.
- White Rice (not brown rice/moisture content is too high)
- All Dried Beans
- Potato flake
- Powdered mil
- Cereals like rolled oats and granola (If packaged properly
- Whole grains like wheat berries, amaranth and quinoa
Opened Packaged Goods
We’re quick to assume that once a product is opened it should be refrigerated. That’s often true and the label will usually say “refrigerate after opening.” But there are some foods that never require refrigeration and others that we store in the pantry after opening, but still wonder about. Here’s the list of opened packaged foods that are surprisingly resilient.
- Soy Sauce
- Hot Sauce
- Worcestershire Sauce
- Vinegar based Salad Dressings
- Steak and Barbecue Sauces
- Jams and Jellies
- Peanut Butter
What About Refrigerated Foods?
Here’s the big one. How safe are foods in the refrigerator? This includes foods that could have just been in the fridge a long time, and particularly if the power is out due to a disaster. Here are the refrigerated foods that can still be safe to eat even when unrefrigerated for a few days or longer.
- Butter (Many a farm kitchen table has butter sitting out in a covered butter dish)
- Eggs (in fact, fresh eggs harvested from the chicken coop and unwashed don’t even require refrigeration for months)
- Many Cheeses (particularly hard cheeses like parmesan wedges, asiago, romano, cheddar, and the soft cheese exceptions: homemade mozzarella and that bomb-shelter favorite – Velveeta).
- Fruit Juices (Always smell and give them a little taste. Fresh-squeezed juices are the most vulnerable to spoilage)
But Be Careful Out There
There’s a big caution with refrigerated foods. Generally, most dairy products like milk, soft cheeses, yogurt, sour cream, cottage cheese, meats and fish simply don’t do well after 4 hours without refrigeration. 24 hours if frozen.
If it’s an emergency, eat those as soon as possible (preferably before 4 hours or 24 hours) or at least cook the meats and the fish although that might buy you a day at most.
Smoking the meats or fish in a charcoal smoker could give you a couple to 3 days or more, but do the tests for appearance, smell and taste before making any assumptions about refrigerated foods during a power outage. Then again, you could take some prompt steps to save some of those foods.
Quick Preservation Techniques
If you do have a power outage and are wondering what to do with a refrigerator and freezer full of food, there are some quick preservation techniques you could do for food susceptible to spoilage.
This involves soaking the food in a strong solution of salt and water. Figure a cup of salt to a gallon of water. This is often a preliminary step for smoking and drying meats and fish. The salt solution will inhibit bacterial growth both while in the brine and after it is removed and either dried or smoked. If you plan on eating the food right out of the brine, soak it first in fresh water to remove some of the excess salt.
Vinegar is usually a 5% dilution of acetic acid. Acetic acid also inhibits the growth of bacteria. You can soak fish, soft cheeses, and delicate vegetables like leafy greens in vinegar. The vinegar will impart a flavor, but if you’ve ever had pickled herring you know that the flavor notes from the vinegar actually enhance the taste. Soak them and eat them in the days and even weeks ahead.
This is another quick preservation method usually using salt and sometimes salt and vinegar. Popular examples of fermented foods include sauerkraut and Kim Chi. If you’re never made fermented foods before, a power outage or emergency may give you the chance to ferment for the first time.
This is similar to brining except the salt is applied directly to meat or fish. It’s a standard method for making Gravlax from salmon but can be used with most any fish or meat. In some instances the meat or fish was soaked in water to remove the high salt content from curing. This was typical for foods like country hams and Scandinavian lutefisk which is a highly salted cod.
You can’t plug in a food dehydrator when the power’s out but there are sun-drying techniques that have been used for centuries without electricity. Most any food can be dried and if you are desperate to hold onto refrigerated foods in an emergency, drying is one technique you could use to save some of it.
This is a soup that simmers day and night. You’ll probably need to keep a small fire going day and night to keep your large pot simmering, but it will keep everything in the pot food-safe as long as the simmer is maintained. This is an old cowboy recipe and the camp cook would toss a mix of meats (or fish) and vegetables into the pot and it would feed everyone in the camp for days.
Trust Your Senses… and Common Sense
Any disaster brings varying stress factors to your life and a diminishing food supply during a long-term recovery is certainly one of them. Take the time to think about the foods you have and what you do with them.
Trust your senses to assess the appearance, smell and taste of anything you eat, and use your common sense to determine which foods might be questionable. In the end you should at least get through your food challenges fine and remember to follow the mantra: If in doubt, throw it out.
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