Shelf Life of Canned Foods

Reader Contribution by The Historic Foodie
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I think the whole expiration date racket on canned foods is generated by companies that have figured out they can sell more product if consumers replace something that may have been on their pantry shelf for a while.

When I was a child, and even as a younger adult, no one in my family ever threw out canned food unless the seal was broken on home-canned food or there was a dent or rupture in a store-bought can that left doubts as to whether or not the seal was broken. Today more than half of consumers think canned goods should be discarded after two years or less. I wouldn’t expect anyone to take my word for it so let’s consider a statement by industry experts who say that as long as the container is not damaged, that canned food can last indefinitely. 

Canned food from the 1940s. Photo: Library of Congress

The following quote is from the Canned Food Alliance’s website and can be viewed in its entirety at the link at the end of this post.

“Canned food has a shelf life of at least two years from the date of processing. Canned food retains its safety and nutritional value well beyond two years, but it may have some variation in quality, such as a change of color and texture. Canning is a high-heat process that renders the food commercially sterile. Food safety is not an issue in products kept on the shelf or in the pantry for long periods of time. In fact, canned food has an almost indefinite shelf life at moderate temperatures.  (75 Fahrenheit and below). Canned food as old as 100 years has been found in sunken ships and it is still microbiologically safe! We don’t recommend keeping canned food for 100 years, but if the can is intact, it is edible. Rust or dents do not affect the contents of the can as long as the can does not leak. If the can is leaking, however, or if the ends are bulged, the food should not be used.”

A 1933 display of Richelieu canned goods. Photo:

Canned foods were salvaged from the shipwrecks Arabia and Bertrand and are on display in the museums along with an unbelievable quantity of cargo intended for stocking stores and homesteads. I visited both museums several years ago on assignment for a magazine article on the cargo. I highly recommend visiting either or both. Thanks to the Internet and sites like Pinterest, photos can now be viewed online for those who do not have the time or resources to travel to the museums.

The Arabia was built in the Pringle boatyard in Brownsville, Pennsylvania, and made its first trip on the river in 1853. It hit a snag and sank in the Missouri River in 1856 fully loaded with supplies. Over the course of time, the river changed course to the point that the steamship and its cargo were sealed off from the air by dry sand until it was discovered in the middle of a cornfield 150 years later. Food found in the cargo included canned pickles, fruit, champagne, etc., which are on display and the owners said they sampled some of the recovered canned food. 

The Bertrand sank on April 1, 1865, while carrying cargo up the Missouri River to Montana Territory. Some half of its cargo was recovered 100 years later and is on display at the DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge Museum in Iowa. The museum is within a day’s travel from the Arabia. Recovered canned foods included pepper sauce, bottled fruits, French mustard, brandied cherries, along with whiskey, brandy, etc. 

I can’t say as I’d want to serve any of the food from the steamships, but I’m not going to throw out perfectly good canned food either. 

See also: 

Canned Food Alliance

Arabia Steamboat Museum

Steamboat Bertrand Cargo Collection

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