Canned food items

Worried about the best-by dates on the pantry items you’ve been squirreling away for the zombie apocalypse? Rest easy. Those canned foods might outlive the reanimated.

In grocery stores, shoppers are confronted with three dates: sell-by, use-by, and best-by. According to Table to Table, with the exception of infant formula, none of these dates indicate when a product should be tossed. Sell-by isn’t a date consumers should worry about; rather it is used by stores for inventory purposes. The use-by date references the date the item will still be at its peak. Similarly, best-by signifies food quality. What these dates do not indicate is spoilage.

In fact, shelf-stable items do not require dates at all, says the Food and Drug Administration. In order for food to be considered shelf-stable, the items must undergo a heating or drying process that kills any bacteria or microorganism that could compromise the food. Canning uses heat processing followed by a vacuum seal, which sucks out oxygen, to preserve the food’s integrity. This technically lasts indefinitely, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, unless something compromises the can.

Using canned foods after their best-by date

Person reading a can label

In commercial canning, plenty can impact a can’s integrity. Temperature fluctuations, rust, dings and dents that happen in the shipping process, even the corrosive nature of the food inside can all impact its safety. Care to Keep recommends storing canned food in cool, dry areas where the temperature does not exceed 70 degrees Fahrenheit; higher temps can affect the nutritional value of the food, while temperatures over 100 degrees can spoil even canned items.

Toss any cans that have been heavily dented, since this can cause tiny imperfections in the seam of the can, giving bacteria a point of entry. Similarly, rust makes tiny holes in cans, which can lead to microorganisms undermining its sterile environment. If you come across a can that’s bulging, toss it immediately. That food has botulism.

Assuming that the food in the can remains safe to eat, the best-by date stamped on it alerts you to food quality. Today says peak quality lasts two years after processing, but items like beans can last up to five. Generally, food that is more acidic has a shorter shelf life. The FoodKeeper app, created by the USDA, can help determine the optimal storage time for your canned goods.

Still, in case of a zombie emergency, properly stored and maintained canned food can be consumed safely. It just might not taste that delicious.