If you’re looking through your pantry for something to eat and you notice one of your canned foods has been sitting in there well past the date printed on the can, you might think it’s time to throw it out and head to the grocery store to restock.
Are most canned foods still safe to eat past the “use by” date?
- U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)
- Can Manufacturers Institute, the trade association of the metal and composite can manufacturing industry and its suppliers in the United States
- Meredith Carothers, a food safety expert with the USDA
- Amy Reed, pediatric dietitian at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics
Yes, most canned foods are still safe to eat well past the “use by” date. The exceptions are infant formula and cans that are damaged or stored in extreme temperatures.
WHAT WE FOUND
Canned foods typically don’t have an expiration date because most are “shelf-stable,” meaning they can be safely stored at room temperature “on the shelf.” Instead of an expiration date, the two main labels printed on the can are the “best by” or “use by” dates.
A "best by" date indicates when a product will be of best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Can Manufacturers Institute. Meanwhile, a “use by" date is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality. The “use by” date is also not a safety date except when used on canned infant formula.
The USDA explains a “use by” date is required on canned infant formula under the inspection of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) because “consumption by this date ensures the formula contains not less than the quantity of each nutrient as described on the label” and “formula must maintain an acceptable quality to pass through an ordinary bottle nipple.” The USDA warns consumers to avoid buying or using canned formula after its "use by" date.
Outside of canned formula, USDA food safety expert Meredith Carothers explains most canned foods are safe to eat indefinitely because the food is placed in airtight, vacuum-sealed containers and heat processed, which destroys microorganisms and inactivates enzymes.
“When canned foods are processed and put together in their can they are going through a heat-treating process — a pressurized process that is essentially reducing the amount of bacteria and microorganisms that might exist in that canned food. Ultimately, what that does is it makes it so it'll stay safe indefinitely,” Carothers said.
Carothers says it's important to store canned foods in cool, dry places and keep them out of extreme temperatures, like below freezing or over 85 degrees. In fact, as long as the can remains in good condition, meaning no rusts, dents, or swelling, then the USDA says the food inside can be safely consumed for years past the “use by” date.
Amy Reed, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, also told VERIFY properly storing canned foods is important to prevent botulism. Botulism is an extremely rare toxin or poison produced by the bacteria Clostridium botulinum (C. botulinum) that is a “very serious danger in canned goods,” according to the USDA.
Botulism bacteria grow best in conditions that are absent of oxygen, and since the canning process forces air out of food, the USDA says “the bacteria may find incorrectly or minimally processed canned foods a good place to grow and produce the toxin.” The USDA explains that low-acid vegetables, such as green beans, corn, beets, and peas, which may have picked up C. botulinum spores from the soil, are at risk.
“To avoid botulism, carefully examine any canned food that looks suspicious. The risk is greater if containers have been canned at home without following safe canning procedures,” the USDA says on its website. “Never use food from containers showing possible botulism warnings — leaking, bulging, or badly dented cans; cracked jars or jars with loose or bulging lids; canned food with a foul odor; milky liquids surrounding the vegetables that should be clear; or any container that spurts liquid when you open it. Don't even taste the food!”
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