When to toss canned food out?
April 10, 2005 3:50 AM   Subscribe

I've got some food that's past it's "Best Before" dates. Can I safely eat it?

I'm a pretty frugal person (except for holidays and such), and purchase most of my "eat in" food in bulk and almost always when it's on sale.

I keep maybe three months worth of dry goods on hand, typically because I've taken advantage of a sale. I rotate stuff pretty well but somehow messed up and now I've got some pasta, canned tomato sauce and fish, all with "Best Before" dates in the May to November 2004 range.

Can I safely eat this stuff? I think the pasta is a no brainer, I'm a little shakey on the tomato sauce, and downright fearful of the fish. It's no big deal if I have to discard, but I'm curious as a couple of times GalPal and I went into a feeding frenzy as the expiration dates approached. We're talking about fourty cans of tomato sauce and the same number of fish.

FWIW, the tomato sauce has those little safety buttons and they are flat (for now).
posted by Mutant to Food & Drink (22 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I used to be a restaurant and bar manager and had to sit numerous food hygiene exams. It's been a few years, but these are some basics:

"Best before" is advisory (the food is best before that date, it's up to you if you want to eat it after that). "Use by" isn't advisory, it's "throw it out after that date, you shouldn't eat it".

Pasta should be absolutely fine as it's a dry ingredient and bacteria need moisture to grow. Canning is a sterilisation process so, in theory, it should all be okay. However, like you, I'd still be wary of the fish because, well, it's fish.
posted by TheDonF at 4:15 AM on April 10, 2005

Best answer: The USDA says:
Safety After Date Expires
Except for "use-by" dates, product dates don't always refer to home storage and use after purchase. But even if the date expires during home storage, a product should be safe, wholesome and of good quality -- if handled properly and kept at 40° F or below. See the accompanying refrigerator charts for storage times of dated products.

Foods can develop an off odor, flavor or appearance due to spoilage bacteria. If a food has developed such characteristics, you should not use it for quality reasons.

If foods are mishandled, however, foodborne bacteria can grow and cause foodborne illness -- before or after the date on the package. For example, if hot dogs are taken to a picnic and left out several hours, they wouldn't be safe if used thereafter, even if the date hasn't expired.
For guidelines from other countries, google around. Here are pages from the UK and New Zealand.

It looks like you should discriminate between "best by" (a warning about quality) and "use by" (a warning about safety), but you should read your own country's rules carefully before sitting down to eat food that is past its prime.
posted by pracowity at 6:41 AM on April 10, 2005

i'd eat them as long as the cans weren't damaged/dented at all (i presume it's something like canned sardines, right?).
in fact, i used to regularly buy stuff cheap at sainsbury's because it was past its best by date.
posted by andrew cooke at 6:48 AM on April 10, 2005

the fish i wouldn't eat, but everything else i would, especially the dry stuff.
posted by amberglow at 7:01 AM on April 10, 2005

Pasta is definitely fine. If you haven't opened the tomato sauce I'm sure it's okay too.
posted by grouse at 7:07 AM on April 10, 2005

There was an article in the NYT about this awhile ago that went through all the expiration date phrases like "Best if Used By." I can't seem to find it, but I'll keep looking.
posted by scazza at 7:13 AM on April 10, 2005

Best answer: Ah, here is a repost of the article:

How to tell when your foods are past their prime

"Years ago, we had a mess with canned crushed tomatoes that exploded all over the room as soon as the can opener made a hole in the top. ...High-acid canned foods such as tomatoes and some fruits should be used within 18 months of purchase."
posted by scazza at 7:21 AM on April 10, 2005

Another vote for using the pasta and tomatoes. Definitely skip the fish.

I bought a lot of pasta and tomato sauce before Y2K, and I just finished using it up last year. Canned food is supposed to last for a long, long time. Pasta (as long as it remains dry) will also last indefinitely. Indefinite only because I've never seen dried pasta that has gone bad.
posted by bh at 7:25 AM on April 10, 2005

"I've never seen dried pasta that has gone bad"

then you haven't seen pasta--or flour, rice, or other dry starchy food--infested with meal moths [or larvae] or confused flour beetles! fortunately, these pests are usually obvious.

i wouldn't worry about the pasta sauce. i'm old enough to remember when there were no dates on food. like the italian grocery where the owner would fetch a can of tomato paste and wipe the dust off the top with her apron.

canned fish--do you mean tuna and sardines? i don't think they'd be a problem with them either. i mean, we're talking just a few months. wouldn't the manufacturer build-in a "grace period" for self-protection?

well, if you're too squeemish about the fish, give it to a cat at least.
posted by subatomiczoo at 8:04 AM on April 10, 2005

The only time I've seen dried pasta that wasn't fit to eat was when I had an infestation of pantry moths. It was revoltingly obvious. Thanks to AskMe, I've not seen a moth in months!

As for the tomatoes and fish, well, if the cans aren't dented or swollen, I'd have no qualms about opening them. If they look okay and smell okay, then enjoy.
posted by Alylex at 8:48 AM on April 10, 2005

Yes, you can safely eat all of it; just trust your senses. The pasta will be boiled for 10 minutes, and it's dry as a bone; so you won't need to worry about infestation. If you find bugs gross (which, by the way, could infest your pasta regardless of its age), check carefully for them before you cook the pasta. If you don't mind these (harmless) bugs, boil away!

Canned items are thoroughly sterilized in the canning process. That's the whole point. Flavor might be a little harmed by the cans' age, but unless the integrity of the can has been damaged (beware of swelling or breakage), and the food smells OK to you, don't worry about it.
posted by rxrfrx at 8:50 AM on April 10, 2005

I think manufacturers should be shot for stamping cryptic encoded expiration dates on canned items. It is just amazing they do this when food safety is at stake.
posted by rolypolyman at 10:38 AM on April 10, 2005

I learned in a food safety class that the "use by" stamps usually refer to nutrition content, texture, and other superficial type things. It's not the same as the expiration date on a carton of milk. Super-old canned foods might not be delicious, but i don't think they will make you sick.
posted by elisabeth r at 10:44 AM on April 10, 2005

Agreed. Best before refers to the constituents: they can't guarantee that all the protein etc etc on the side of the can will be at the same level/ratio. Use before means that in their testing of the product, bacterial growth could have risen to a food poisoning level at that time (but it's still a test with your senses thing: as most people do with milk - depends on how much exposure to air and room temperature).

I remember reading about a study years ago in which they examined the contents of a can of meat/vegetables which was canned during the civil war. At the time of the testing they found that the contents still had about 95% of the original constituent parts. There were no bugs and it was said to be quite edible.

Canning is still said to be the most efficient food preserving process. As long as the container is undamaged and not swollen it will make no difference whether the contents are fish or tomatoes - canning confers the same excellent preserving properties on both.

But common sense and odour/sight testing would always be recommended. (do I feel like I am writing the blurb for the side of the can?)
posted by peacay at 11:36 AM on April 10, 2005

Food doesn't go bad all at once, and there's quite a bit of variability about it. Those dates are designed to be safe universally, so you've got to figure that they're on the conservative end.

Use the date as a guide but learn how to spot bad food. Discoloration, excessive separation, effervesence, bad odor, sharp taste... It kind of depends on what you eat. But anyway moldy bread isn't going to kill you.
posted by scarabic at 11:55 AM on April 10, 2005

I think these dates are another example of human beings reallly not liking the fact that a lot of decisions in life depend on "judgment" rather than some absolute standard of logic or something. Those dates are an attempt to predict a time around which the product will have lost enough of its quality to be noticable. But it has been losing some degree of quality since the day it was picked or killed or made, and it will continue to do so. They've given an estimate of a cut-off time, but it's not based on any specific "change" that occurs at some particular moment. It's just the accumulation of aging gets to what has been judged "the line"...

Infestation is a different matter from aging, and as has been noted, is not necessarily correlated with age.
posted by mdn at 1:46 PM on April 10, 2005

Stores like Grocery Outlet often sell food products beyond their Best By dates, and at a substantial discount. Go for it.

However, a few months back I did toss out a couple of cans of crushed tomatoes -- they'd swollen a bit.
posted by xiojason at 3:22 PM on April 10, 2005

All of that stuff is still edible. If the fish was not sterilized when canned, it would be marked as requiring refrigeration, open or not. If you stockpile-shop in the future, just be sure to transfer the pasta and other dry goods to airtight containers for storage.
posted by obloquy at 4:06 PM on April 10, 2005

I used to work at a "thrift" store run a company that rhymes with Repperidge Farm. ALL we sold was crap past its date. Different things had different guidelines. Bread we had seven days to get rid of. Cookies and crackers: SIX MONTHS. Don't even ask me about canned soups and sauces, 'cuz I don't ever remember pulling those off the shelves.

Well, it wasn't all past date, actually. Some was botched batches, sometimes from other outfits under the same corporate parent (rhymes with Kampbell's Soup), so sometimes we'd have imperfect Godiv--excuse me, Gahdiva chocolates. That was fun, but mostly the store just earned it's nickname: "old bread for old people."

See here for more exciting stories from my teenage misadventures at the store, which also has a link to this detailed newspaper article on the absence of standards for freshness labels:
"It is perfectly legal, for example, for a supermarket worker to take a steak that is older than the date stamped on the package and relabel it with a new date. The milk with next month's date may not be fresher than the carton with next week's date."
Mmm, dusty meat...
posted by NortonDC at 8:19 PM on April 10, 2005

I have some hard candies (think lollipop with no stick) that were sealed in a tin in 1963. Still delicious, but I've heard the red dye they used back then gives you the cancer.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 9:19 PM on April 10, 2005

NortonDC - Dusty meat. How about green meat? I used to have a grocery store near me (rhymes with Mood Lion) that would relabel expired meat and put a 'Manager's Special' coupon on it. More than once it was green. Needless to say, I never bought anything from that store that wasn't prepackaged.
posted by bh at 6:21 AM on April 11, 2005

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