Uncluttering expired canned goods

When cleaning out your kitchen pantry, there is a good chance you’ll find cans of food with date stamps like “Best By 04/2013.” What do you do with those cans?

You may want to keep them.

Obviously, if the cans show signs of problems — bulges, dents along the seams, etc. — you won’t want to keep them. But if the only concern is the date, the food might be safe to eat. As the FDA says, there are surplus grocery stores and food-salvage stores that specialize in such products — and if you buy carefully, those foods can be fine.

The USDA explains: “A ‘Best if Used By (or Before)’ date is recommended for best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.”

NPR interviewed John Ruff, president of the Institute of Food Technologies, who had a lot of interesting things to say on the matter, too.

According to Ruff, most products are safe to eat long after their expiration date. …

That’s because it’s not the food that sat on the shelf too long that makes you sick, Ruff says. It’s the food that got contaminated with salmonella or listeria bacteria, or disease-causing strains of E. coli. And that food might … have arrived in the store only yesterday.

“In 40 years, in eight countries, if I think of major product recalls and food poisoning outbreaks, I can’t think of [one] that was driven by a shelf-life issue,” Ruff says.

Canned food, in particular, can stay safe for a really long time.

And an article by Nadia Arumugam, which appeared in Forbes and The Atlantic, said:

“Foods can remain safe to consume for some time beyond sell-by and even use-by dates provided they are handled and stored properly,” says Dr. Ted Labuza, a professor of food science at the University of Minnesota. … Canned foods and shelf-stable goods like salad dressings, Labuza adds, can be consumed for years beyond their expiration dates. While their quality might suffer — for example, emulsified dressings may split — they will not pose a safety hazard unless contaminated. Apart from baby formula and certain types of baby foods, product dating is not even required by federal regulations.

You might donate them.

Some food banks will accept these cans, and others won’t — so check what the policy is at your local food bank. And, of course, food banks won’t want those damaged or bulging cans, either.

One woman who volunteered at a food bank shared her experience:

I literally, personally had to throw away over 3 huge trash cans, each weighing more than 350 lbs, of dented and expired cans. … What I did learn though was that you can donate expired canned goods up to 6 months from the date on the product.

The Food Bank of Iowa has a list of Food Shelf Extended Dates, listing exactly which “expired” foods, including canned items, it accepts. This same list might also help you decide which products you feel comfortable keeping and using yourself.

You might compost the contents.

I’m no expert in composting, but it seems that canned goods are fine to compost, with a few exceptions. For example, meat and fish products can attract pests, so don’t compost those. Some sources indicate that canned goods with salt may be problematic, too.

You might empty the contents and recycle the can.

Even if you aren’t composting, you could open the cans, dump the contents down the garbage disposer or into a trash bag, and recycle the cans.

You might just throw them away.

Sometimes you may decide to just throw away the cans you don’t want. This is especially true when doing a large uncluttering project, where getting the work done may take precedence over being ecologically conscious. Or, maybe dealing with old food just makes you squirm. As with almost any organizing project, the “right choice” is a very personal thing.

9 Comments for “Uncluttering expired canned goods”

  1. posted by Claire on

    What about non-canned items after their date? I have a packet of gravy mix and two cans of spices that are all past their date. Since they are not in cans, I’m not sure if their freshness has passed or if they are still ok to use.

  2. posted by Carmen on

    Ugh – I had to deal with my MIL’s pantry a couple of weeks ago. She has short, deep shelves she can’t get to the back very easily. The “winner” was a can of preserves from 1992. No, that isn’t a typo. I’m thinking of giving her the gift of pull-out shelves for Christmas.

  3. posted by Melissa A. on

    Ok, this is funny because just today I was thinking of buying some canned salmon and then remembered I still had some in the cupboard. I was wondering if they were still good. Turns out the date hadn’t passed yet, but this is good to know.

    Also, you can compost meat and fish if your city does curbside pickup of compost. They just recommend you wrap it in newspaper or put it in a cereal box before putting it in the bin.

  4. posted by Viv on

    I think having a system of rotating so this doesn’t happen is the takeaway on this post.

  5. posted by Jeri Dansky on

    Claire, I haven’t done extensive research on gravy mix, but here’s one site that talks about its shelf life:
    http://www.stilltasty.com/fooditems/index/17322

    The same site has some information about spices:
    http://www.stilltasty.com/questions/index/152

  6. posted by Elizabeth on

    Claire – things like gravy mix will still be safe to use as they are a mixture of long life dry ingredients (eg flour) and additives. The powdered mix may clump together more than it did when fresh but the end product won’t be affected.

    Dried herbs and spices can be safely used – I should know because I’ve got a stack of jars which are years beyond their sell-by date. The aroma fades over time so when used in recipes you won’t get quite as strong a flavour as you might have done with new products. It’s easy to add in just a little more spice/herb to compensate though.

  7. posted by Marie on

    I still have nightmares about the dates on canned goods from cleaning out my grandparents’ and grandparents-in-laws’ homes. Some of the canned goods rivaled myself in age.

  8. posted by WilliamB on

    @Claire: dry goods are also safe to eat long past their dates. Any confusion usually resolved around “still tastes good” and “won’t make you ill.” Here are the caveats:

    – Don’t use of they’re visibly infested (duh, I know).

    – Old spices lose their spicy taste, but are still safe to eat. This happens faster in warm places, in bright places, and the smaller the spice. So whole nutmegs stored in the freezer last forever, ground nutmeg stored in the sunlight and next to the stove lasts 6 months. It’s easy to test: crush some of the spice in your hand and smell it. The stronger the smell, the stronger the spice.

    – Leavening will gradually become ineffective. It isn’t unsafe but it won’t taste good. You can test leaven directly: put yeast in warm water with a bit of sugar, if it foams within 5 min it’s still effective; put baking powder in water, if it foams a lot, it’s still effective; put baking soda in vinegar or lemon juice, if it foams a lot it’s still effective). There’s no effective way to test a mix other than bake it.

    – The main exception is fat. A mix with fat in it can go rancid.

  9. posted by WilliamB on

    Jeri is correct about composting.

    – Animal proteins are more likely to attract critters than anything else, so most home composters avoid using them.

    – Too much salt can greatly retard or even kill a compost pile. It’s all about proportions: if your pile is a cubic foot, then don’t put a dozen jars of pickles in. If your pile is a cubic yard, one or two jars is fine.

    – Alternatively, drain the brine before adding the pickled foods. That reduces the salt levels drastically, enough not to be a problem.

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