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Has this happened to you? You reach into the back of your kitchen cabinet or pantry to grab a can of soup or beans only to notice the date stamped on the can has expired. You wonder, is it safe to eat?
The answer is more than likely yes. However, according to the Natural Resource Defense Council, the confusion surrounding food labels accounts for about 20 percent of the food waste in our nation.
At about 400 pounds per American per year, food waste is the largest category of trash in our nation’s landfills. Not only is this wasted food a trash problem, it is costing both retailers and consumers a lot of money. We are literally tossing away good food.
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A big part of the food labeling problem is that only about 30 percent of consumers know the difference between “use by,” “sell by,” and “best before” dates, according to the Food Marketing Institute. Here is what you need to know.
Use By Dates
This label is usually used for products with a very short shelf life, such as meats, dairy products, and prepared sauces and salads.
Sell By Dates
This date serves as a guide for grocers. It indicates how long they should have the item on display. It does not tell how long it is safe to eat. For example, with proper refrigeration, milk should last around seven days past its sell by date.
Best Before Dates
This label concerns quality, not safety. It means that the food may begin to lose flavor or change somewhat in appearance after this date, but it will be safe to eat long afterward. For example, an unopened box of cereal may not be as crispy after its “best before” date, but it still is safe to eat.
So, what about that can of soup or beans? Most commercially canned goods have a “best before” date on them, so it is probably okay to eat. Here are four steps to take to be more confident that the contents of a can are safe.
1. Examine The Exterior Of The Can
No matter what the date says, do not eat food from a can that is badly dented, bulging, or leaking. According to the USDA, these signs could dictate the presence of botulism, a rare but potentially fatal illness caused by a toxin.
Rusted cans and cans that show flaking or other signs of wear and tear also have a higher chance of being contaminated than cans in their original condition.
2. Open The Can
If the can seems to be in good shape, you can open it. Discard it if any liquid sprays or spurts out of the can as you open it. After you have removed the lid, examine the surface for any signs of scum or mold on the surface. Keep in mind that the food’s color may be slightly different from the food in a fresher can.
3. Smell The Contents
Your next step is to smell the food. If there is an unpleasant or unusual odor of any kind, throw it away.
4. Taste It
Your final step is to give it a small taste. Long-term storage can diminish the flavor of a canned food somewhat, but it should still have a familiar taste.
Storage Requirements For Cans
The primary reason canned foods spoil is improper storage. Aim to store your cans in a cool, dry place. For example, don’t place them in a cabinet over the stove or under the sink or in a damp garage or basement.
Microorganisms can grow in cans left in damp areas or in temperatures over 95°F. Also, keep your cans out of sunlight. The sun’s heat can cause the air in the can to expand, potentially breaking open its seal and allowing microorganisms to enter the can. Also, sunlight can accelerate rancidity in foods that contain oil or fats.
How long can you keep cans after that “best by” date?
If the cans meet the above requirements, the answer is indefinitely.
In an often-referenced study conducted in 1974 by the National Food Processors Association (NFPA), researchers examined cans of corn that had been stored in a California basement for 40 years. They reported that the “old” corn looked and smelled like canned corn should. They also found that the corn had lost some of its Vitamin C but had retained most of its other nutrients.
Here’s another even older example. In 1968, scientists examined canned food that had been recovered from the Steamboat Bertrand, which had sunk to the floor of the Missouri River in 1865. Chemists at the NFPA analyzed canned peaches, plum tomatoes, honey, oysters, and mixed vegetables for bacterial contamination and nutritional value.
They found that although the food had lost its smell and fresh appearance as well as significant amounts of vitamins A and C, the food retained its protein and calcium levels and showed no microbial growth. The scientists deemed it safe to eat, although none of the reports mention if anyone did eat it or not.
The lab results were similar for the cans of tomatoes and red peppers that were recovered from a 100-year-old sunken steamboat discovered near Omaha, Neb.
A big part of being prepared for an emergency is having a well-stocked pantry of shelf-stable foods. Don’t let “best by” dates discourage you from stocking up on commercially canned products.
Here are a few other tips for stocking your pantry.
- Follow the first in, first out rule (FIFO) so that you consume the food with the oldest date before you open your newer supply.
- Store cans and jars upright to keep pressure off the lid which can weaken the seal.
- Grocers sometimes discount dented cans. Small dents are usually okay, but take a pass if you can lay your finger into the dent or if it has sharp points. Use the lightly dented can as soon as possible.
- Similarly, if the exterior of a can has a light layer of rust that easily wipes away, the food inside is probably fine, according to the USDA. However, you should dispose of a heavily rusted can.
- Trust your instincts. If you’re concerned about eating it, you probably shouldn’t. As the saying goes, “If in doubt, throw it out.”
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