Reading expiration dates on all of those cans in your pantry:

One of the worst headaches food storage can provide is how to deal with all of those dates and codes on the many cans, boxes and bags of food you have in your pantry.

Let me give you a few examples from my own pantry and then I’ll decode them for you.

These all have easily readable codes:

  • Armour Vienna Sausages     best by June 09 13 (of10 211w p4247)
  • Armour Chopped Ham         best by 07-14-11 (fm14g809:36 103 est-2ad)
  • Dinty Moore Meatball Stew    best by Jan 2013 (est 199g t128194 15:31)
  • Libby’s peas and carrots    (g9mj131a 1115 4307 peas/carrots)
  • Chicken of the Sea Tuna    best by 08/20/13 (gal3d 1a22a 10:03)
  • Heinz Yellow Mustard         10/28/2011 (hfog27q9 15:46)

I tried to find some weird coded cans but out of the few dozen cans in my pantry there were none, so sorry about that. It seems that pretty near all of the processors now use actual dates on their packaging. The codes accompanying the dates are mostly production dates and lot numbers. Generally speaking, all of these products should be acceptable for at least two to three years after the sell by date. The general consensus is that properly sealed canned goods tend to have an indefinite shelf life, however you should keep in mind that flavor, appearance and nutritional value does degrade after a period of time in any canned good. So more so than others, but that’s where you need to do your own research into the matter.

Let’s look at some of the fallacies and fact behind canned food storage. Many people labor under the assumption that a can of food must be tossed in the trash if it is past the date printed on the can. This doesn’t necessarily have to be the case. There are three general terms used for dating canned goods in practice;

Types of Dates

  • A “Sell-By” date tells the store how long to display the product for sale. You should buy the product before the date expires.
  • A “Best if Used By (or Before)” date is recommended for best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.
  • A “Use-By” date is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality. The date has been determined by the manufacturer of the product.
  • “Closed or coded dates” are packing numbers for use by the manufacturer.

While all of these codes suggest when a product should be sold by, they don’t specifically tell you whether the food is safe or not. In some instances a can of food may well be safe several years after that sell by date has passed. The general rule of thumb in the industry is that canned goods are ok for up to two years after the sell by date, provided of course that safe food handling practices have been followed.

Under most food laws, a retailer must sell or dispose of sell by dated food on or before that date listed on the can. If you buy a can of peas dated sell by 10 Dec 2009, that doesn’t mean you must use it before that date or throw it out. These sell by dates simply tell the retailer when the food should be sold by. In many cases the retailer is still free to donate that expired food to a food bank or soup kitchen.

The best if used by date simply means that for optimum quality and nutritional value, the food should be prepared and consumed by that date. The use by date means the same thing, it’s just worded different because some lawyer needed to make some extra bucks. Those gobbledygook numbers are merely a manufacturer’s way of having a unique code for their cans, and these can be the hardest to decode. These are usually used on product that can have a long safety life if stored properly.

Some canned goods can have a safety zone of decades after the sell by date, such as Dinty Moore Beef Stew. According to their faq section, The processing techniques utilized by Hormel Foods makes the canned product safe for use indefinitely if the product seal remains intact, unbroken and securely attached to a can that has been well maintained… That’s a good long time, but they also recommend that the product be used within 2 to 3 years after the sell by date.

Other manufacturers have differing standards so you should take the time to do some research on your food dates to learn how to read the codes, and see what the manufacturer suggests for storage life capabilities.

What constitutes safe storage?

Safe storage means that your food needs to be kept under controlled temperatures, general guidelines call for a range of a low around 60˚F to 70˚F for best results. I prefer the low 60s range myself. The area must be kept clean, and free of insects and rodents. It also must be dry, with a low humidity level. Your canned goods also need to be kept out of direct sunlight. Never place your canned good directly on a concrete floor, even if they are in a case pack. At the very least they should be on a pallet, although sturdy shelving is the best place to put them.

Your canned goods should be rotated for best performance, and it also helps to write the date of purchase on the top of the can with a magic marker. Keep the cans fronted, or to the leading edge of the shelf, and make sure there is room between the top of the can and the bottom of the shelf above to make it easier to place newly purchased cans.

Place the larger, heavier cans on the lower shelves so the storage unit doesn’t become too top heavy and prone to toppling during an earthquake. Ideally, any bagged and boxed mixes and powders should go on the top shelves.

Also, along with your pantry goods should be a portable stove and a kit of pots and pans for cooking your canned goods in an emergency. The smart way to store is to build a bomb shelter/room, and utilize that as your emergency shelter as well as your pantry/storage room. You can also keep water, blankets, flashlights and candles along with any other supplies you may need for your area. Camp cots and/or sleeping mats and bags are something almost everyone I have discussed this with seems to leave out for some reason. If you have a concrete floor, you are much better off comfort wise with the camp cots, by the way.

Canned goods should be used as your first line of supply in any emergency situation, with long term foods stored as a worst case scenario food source. That being the case you need to take just as much care with these products as you would any other food product. And they don’t need to be such a worry, either. Just remember that the sell by date doesn’t mean the content is no good after that date, and that canned goods do eventually degrade to some extent, but not for several years after that sell by date.

Discard any cans that have corrosion on them, or that have become severely dented by dropping on the floor. Also discard any canned goods that spurt when opened or that may have an off odor coming from them when opening. These are signs of contamination. Most cans will “exhale” when opening, but if the hiss seems unusually loud, or long it could also mean the food is contaminated. Examine it carefully, and discard if in doubt.

As an added suggestion, always wipe off the top of the can with a clean damp rag to make sure there are no contaminants that may get into the food when opening.

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