Canned goods are a staple in home pantries. Cans are an appealing packaging choice, partly due to their long shelf life. According to the Can Manufacturers Institute, Sir William Edward Parry carried canned provisions on his Arctic expeditions in the 1820s. One of the unopened cans was on display in a museum. The can was opened in 1938. Examination of the contents found the meat to be in good condition. However, keeping canned goods for 100 years is not recommended. Canned food does expire.
With the exception of baby formula and some baby foods, dating food products is not required by federal law. Many companies date products as a means to comply with state ordinances or as a courtesy to the retailer and consumer. Government regulations require foods labeled with a calendar date to include an explanation of the date. A "sell-by" date is used to inform the retailer how long the product may remain on the store shelf. Dates using a "best-if-used-by" explanation detail the time period the product is at its peak flavor and is not an indication of expiration. "Use-by" is the last day the manufacturer has determined the product should be consumed. These dates provide a guide to the consumer. However, an unopened product that has been properly stored is not necessarily spoiled even if it has passed the "use-by" date. Most canned goods are labeled by a code rather than a calendar date. These codes are developed by the individual manufacturer and are not universal. The codes are used to track products and identify individual runs in case of a recall.
Canned goods should be stored out of direct sunlight in a fairly constant temperature of under 75 degrees Fahrenheit. If the can is undated, use the date of purchase as the starting date. High-acid canned goods, such as tomatoes and some fruits, will retain peak flavor for 12 to 18 months. Meats, fish and vegetables will retain maximum quality for 2 to 5 years. These are general guidelines. In most cases, properly stored canned foods are safe to eat after the stated time lines. However, the quality of the food may be diminished. It is a good practice to rotate canned goods, keeping the oldest cans in front so they are used up first.
Use caution before consuming old canned food. If you are unsure of the age of a canned food, call the manufacturer's 800 number. The manufacturer will be able to date the product with the code stamped on the can. Inspect old cans before opening. Dented cans should be used with caution. Dents can weaken the seals of a can and allow harmful bacteria to enter. Never consume foods from a bloated or bulging can. Bulging and leaking are potential signals of botulism. Use common sense before consuming any food. Do not use any food product that has a strange color or emits a foul odor.
Use caution when disposing of spoiled canned goods. Always wear gloves when dealing with suspect foods. Botulism may be transferred into the body through contact with the skin. Secure open or leaking cans in heavy plastic. Carefully dispose of the spoiled food, ensuring it is inaccessible to animals or other people. Clean every surface that may have come in contact with the spoiled food with a bleach solution.