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.
“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.