Canned goods and packaged foods don’t last forever. Proper handling extends their shelf life; following safety rules decreases risks of foodborne illness.
Don’t look to the federal government to regulate date stamps on canned and packaged goods. Product dating is a hodge-podge of state regulations, with some states having little or no regulation. That means the health and safety of your food products depends on your following basic safety tips and practices.
Product Dating not Regulated by Federal Government
While you might think canned and packaged foods don’t expire, they do. Unfortunately, according to the Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS), US Department of Agriculture, with the exception of infant formula and some baby food, product dating is not generally required by Federal regulations. The lack of standardized, widespread federal food safety legislation explains why there is no uniform or universally accepted system used for food dating in the United States.
Even when manufacturers use product dating, the date is more like a code and can vary from manufacturer to manufacturer. Manufacturers can use:
- A simple month-day-year-MMDDYY open dating code that is easy to decipher, particularly on highly perishable products.
- Variations of closed dating such a Julian calendar code which combines the month and date into a single number based on the number of days in a year. Under this system, January would be 001-0031 and December 334-365, or
- A combination of letters and numbers.
Packing Codes Used for Product Recalls
While food items may not have an expiry date, they must have a packing code to enable product tracking across state lines. This code allows manufacturers and stores to:
- Rotate their stock and sell the oldest stock first, and
- Locate particular products from specific manufacturing runs in the event of a recall.
These codes, which appear as a series of letters and/or numbers, might refer to the date or time of manufacture. Because they are meant to be used by manufacturers and retailers, not consumers, they are generally closed codes. The manufacturers do not have to explain how to translate the codes into dates.
Storage Tips Decrease Foodborne Illnesses
Storing foods in a hot or humid crawl space or garage will shorten the product’s shelf life. In an interview with WebMD, Peggy VanLaanen, EdD, RD, a professor of food and nutrition at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas, advises consumers to keep canned and dry food at 50 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit in a dry, dark place.
FSIS adds two other tips:
- Highly acidic foods that contain tomatoes may interact with the lining of the can and wear it away. They usually have a shelf life of 18 months.
- Low acidic foods such as meat, poultry, fish and most vegetables, which are more inert in the cans, have a two to five-year shelf life.
According to Business Week, safe doesn’t mean optimum nutrition.
- After a year, canned vegetables and fruits will suffer a steady loss of vitamins.
- Packaged foods such as cake mix, pasta, cereal, and cookies will last up to six months from the date of purchase if stored in a cool, dry place.
- Cereal remains edible for two to three months after being opened, if stored in a dry room.
Further advice comes from the Food and Drug Administration which warns consumers to:
- Discard any can with bulging sides as that is often a sign of bacterial growth, and
- Watch for signs of rust on the lids which can lead to spoiled food.
Whenever you’re buying, preparing or eating food, health and safety come first.