Expired Canned Goods: Still Safe to Eat?

Are expired canned goods still safe to eat? Image by Brenda Priddy. Cover design by Kate Singer.

Are expired canned goods still safe to eat? Image by Brenda Priddy.

One worry with stocking a prepper pantry far in advance is the expiration date on the foods. How long will the foods really last? Metal canned goods purchased from the store have a listed “sell-by” or “use-by” date. For the most part, these dates are conservative and most canned goods will last several months, or even years, beyond the sell-by date.

One of the main risks of consuming expired canned foods is the threat of botulism. Botulism is a paralyzing bacterium that can travel easily through food that has not been properly prepared or stored. Damaged cans can also absorb botulism spores. Since the spores are invisible and undetectable, it is important to watch for the signs of contamination in other ways.

Easy Ways to Extend the Shelf Life of Your Metal Canned Goods

If you store a lot of canned goods, you will increase your chances of acquiring a collection of expired cans. You can extend the usable life of these cans by practicing two storage rules:

  1. Store your cans indoors in a room that is constantly between 68 and 78 degrees. Extreme temperature changes increases the risk of spoilage and botulism.
  2. Practice the first-in first-out rule. When you purchase new cans, store them in the back of the shelf, and move cans with closer expiration dates toward the front.

How Long Will Canned Goods Last?

Typically, there is no set date for the life of a canned good. Theoretically, if the can was packaged correctly and is undamaged, it should have an almost indefinite shelf life. However, if you do not want to risk food-borne illnesses from spoiled canned goods, you will probably want to establish your own safe guidelines for consuming expired canned foods.

Acidic canned goods will expire before non-acidic cans. High acidic foods, like tomatoes,

Canned goods can last well beyond their "sell-by" dates. Photo by Brenda Priddy

Canned goods can last well beyond their “sell-by” dates. Photo by Brenda Priddy

fruit, and anything with a vinegar base, should last at least two years beyond the expiration date. Low-acidic foods, like potatoes, carrots, peas, pumpkin, and meat, will likely last five years or more beyond the expiration date.

How to Check a Can for Signs of Spoilage

Check your expired cans at two stages- before opening and after opening. Before opening, look for:

  • Broken seals
  • Bulging sides or top (push to see if it moves and pops up)
  • Signs of rust or corrosion
  • Leaking food

If your cans show none of the above signs, look for these signs of spoilage after opening the can:

  • Small bubbles in the liquid
  • Strange odor
  • Mushy or cloudy foods
  • Exploding or spurting contents after breaking the can’s seal

If your cans show any of the above signs do not consume the contents.

Canned Food Safety

Canned goods safety is not difficult. Follow the steps outlined above, and if you are ever unsure about the safety of any food, use the “when it doubt, throw it out” rule for maximum safety. When you follow these rules, you won’t have to worry so much about the written expiration dates. 

How long do you keep foods past their expiration dates? 

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  1. says

    Funny I was just wondering about this! My city was doing a food drive and I thought “great now I can give them some of the cans that I haven’t gotten around to using.” Unfortunately a lot of them had expired just a few months before (and embarrassingly I admit one or two were a year over the expiration date). I never really thought about cans that had dents in them, but now I will be sure to exchange it on the grocery shelf for a dent free can, hey better safe then sorry.

  2. Wylie hudson says

    You are so wrong. So very very wrong. Expired can food dates have nothing to do with botulism possibilities. Can food is sterile. Any botulism that would be in a canned food would be there regardless of a date, expired or not. Open slash damaged cans is what would make possible the bacteria that causes botulism, info that you do point out. But/ so your statement “one of the main risk of consuming expired canned food is the threat of botulism” is extremely misleading and confusing because you also state canned food can last indefinitely. I’m not splitting hairs here. If someone just reads your sentence/ statement above, they will think the date has to do with botulism. Absurd. It’s the open/damaged can, and really not even damaged since that can be a simple dent that doesn’t expose contents. Your article would be accurate except for that stupid misleading and very inaccurate sentence. And really, when in doubt throw it out? Again you shouldn’t throw out cans obviously still in good condition. Open them and empty contents into a compost! Or if no compost, the earth itself benefits when it eats the contents, and so do insects birds opossums etc!

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