If you are like me your food storage is quite diverse, with canned foods integrated into the rotation cycle. Unfortunately there might not be a way to get through all of your canned food stock prior to hitting a few of those expiration dates, so what then? Do you assume the food magically turned poisonous and then discard it? I hope that is not your primary course of action because in reality canned foods (depending on a few factors) have been known to remain edible long after the manufacturer’s suggested expiration date. So the question remains just how long after the expiration date are canned foods good for? 1 year, 5 years, 10 years? While the method by which you store the food surely has an impact on shelf life (i.e. cool basement versus hot storage shed) there have been cases where canned food survived almost 100 years with no microbial growth whatsoever.
The steamboat Bertrand was heavily laden with provisions when it set out on the Missouri River in 1865, destined for the gold mining camps in Fort Benton, Mont. The boat snagged and swamped under the weight, sinking to the bottom of the river. It was found a century later, under 30 feet of silt a little north of Omaha, Neb.
Among the canned food items retrieved from the Bertrand in 1968 were brandied peaches, oysters, plum tomatoes, honey, and mixed vegetables. In 1974, chemists at the National Food Processors Association (NFPA) analyzed the products for bacterial contamination and nutrient value. Although the food had lost its fresh smell and appearance, the NFPA chemists detected no microbial growth and determined that the foods were as safe to eat as they had been when canned more than 100 years earlier.
In a more recent article entitled Exposing Myths About Expiration Dates on Foods, a reference is made to just how trained people are to discard many items once they are past the expiration date.
“An enormous amount of food gets discarded because of these dates and its really a shame because its perfectly fine, edible, wholesome food but people see the date and react to that,” said Buckley…
Buckley says the dates on canned and packaged foods, bottled water and even beer are more an indication of quality not a food safety or health issue. Even the “sell by” date on milk is only a suggestion.
The bottom line: Don’t be so quick to toss out or donate those canned food items sitting on your basement shelves just because they hit their printed expiration date. When all else fails, crack those suckers open and use your senses to determine if they are still edible (they probably will be). When in doubt some high heat from your rocket stove and an iron skillet can serve as another method by which to “cleanse” the food prior to eating it.
Check out this video for another perspective on which canned foods last the longest.
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