Food is of course an all important part of survival, but what do you eat when the crap hits the fan and the grocer is no more? Simply put, we follow a standard routine of food usage called RFCS. That means refrigerator, freezer, canned, storage. When the power goes out and you know it’s not coming back, you’ll want to first use up your cold food in the kitchens fridge. Then attack the freezer. After that use up your canned goods, which should be considered short term storage food, and ending with your long term storage foods. And if you’ve really got the survival mindset, you probably won’t need to touch much, if any of your long term storage food for a while.

We know that fresh food, such as bread, milk, cheeses etc have expiration dates and are easy to determine when they should be eaten or tossed. Even most convenience foods have the date plainly marked as to when they should be used by. Or at least sold by. Frequently, dated food is good for at least a while past the sell by date. But where most people agonize is when it comes to canned foods. There’s no easy way to tell when canned goods should be discarded, or at least tested before eating.

When buying canned or packaged foods from a grocer or supermarket you should always write the purchase date on the package with an indelible marker. Normally, canned foods are best used within two years after processing. This doesn’t mean the food goes bad after that date, it just means that for best quality and nutritional value it should be used by then. Dates are a tricky subject, and there is a lot of confusion over the range of ways food is labeled. Here is what the Food Marketing Institute has to say about dating:

    Dates are printed on many food products. After the date expires, must you discard that food? In most cases, no. A calendar date may be stamped on a product’s package to help the store determine how long to display the product for sale. It is not a safety date.

Product dating is not required by Federal regulations although dating of some foods is required by 15 states. Calendar dates are found primarily on perishable foods such as dairy products, eggs, meat and poultry. Coded dates might appear on shelf-stable products such as cans and boxes of food.

There are several types of dates:

  • Sell-by” date – tells the store how long to display the product for sale. You should buy the product before the date expires.
  • Best if Used By (or Before)” – recommended for best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.
  • Use-By” – the last date recommended for the use of product while at peak quality. The date has been determined by the manufacturer of the product.
  • Closed or Coded Dates” – packing numbers for use by the manufacturer in tracking their products. This enables manufacturers to rotate their stock as well as locate their products in the event of a recall.

So, we can see where people could be confused. Just remember the two year guideline for canned food and you’ll be fine. An interesting page on reading can codes can be found at here. This page gives you some clues on how to read the codes. Now, the two year guide is just that, a guide. Don’t automatically toss your canned goods just because they reach that date. That would be like throwing your hard earned paycheck away. Another interesting page on canned goods at Y2K Kitchens lists a range of products and their expected lifespan in a proper storage environment. According to the list, Dinty Moore stew and Hormel’s Spam both have a shelf life of 96 months. Good thing too, because I like em both and have plenty on hand.

So here’s the thing about canned food and shelf life. The condition your storage area is in determines your products viability. Generally, you’ll want a cool dark space for your storage area, kept at no more than 75 degrees, with fresh air circulating at all times. I prefer 60 degrees myself. At temperatures over 75 degrees you’ll quickly degrade your food and shorten the time span for safety. The best option would be to use a root cellar type of storage area, but a pantry will do if you can keep the temps down in it.

You’ll also want to make sure the room is rodent and insect free as well. Long term storage foods are great products, but should be held in reserve for the long haul. In my opinion, a smart plan would be to have regular canned food for immediate use, and while you are using it, grow a vegetable garden. As the vegetable mature, reduce your canned food usage by replacing it with the fresh vegetables. And then, as the regular canned foods dwindle, start to use your long term storage food if you need to.

How safe are canned foods, actually? Normally, very safe. The commercial processing actually sterilized the contents, and in addition neutralizes some of the potential problems such as pesticide residue. Canned food can be considered pretty much safer than fresh foods. There are some things to watch out for, however. For one, if a can hisses loudly or spurts when opened, it may be an indication that the food is spoiled. Most canned foods are vacuum packed and will quite often hiss a bit when opened, but they should never spurt, or spray the liquid inside.

Rust or dents do not affect the contents of the can as long as the can does not leak, but if the can is leaking, or if the ends are bulged, the food should not be used. Crushed and dented cans are sold all the time by off price retailers, or in discounted bins at your local grocer, and they are usually fine. I would stay away from sharply creased cans though as this could be an indication of potential future leakage. Also, if you notice a foul or different odor than normal, don’t trust it. Sometimes canned food gone bad will be seriously discolored, but remember that as the food ages there will be some breakdown in quality, so discoloration should not be used as your only clue, unless the discoloration is really off.

Once you’ve opened your canned goods, transfer them to another storage container, especially with the high acid products such as tomato sauces and pastes. The acids will interact with the metal cans once oxygen enters the picture and cause some problems you really don’t want to deal with. Use the product as quickly as possible after opening by cooking it right off, and consuming it after cooking. Remember that if there is a major meltdown, there will be no power to keep things cool.

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  1. Mario says:

    Good information and very useful. Thanks

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