How to Know if Canned Food is Safe Past its Best Before Date

Is canned food past its expiry or Best Before Date safe to eat? What about food in tetra paks?

One of my readers, Sandra, recently asked: “I have a carton of chicken broth that is expired. Is it safe to consume? What guidelines could I use to assess it?”

tetra packaging

I love that Sandra asked not just whether it was safe or not, but also how to assess it so she can apply the information next time. Here’s what I recommend regarding canned or tetra pak items and Best Before Dates.
Best Before Date Tuna
I ate canned tuna with a BBD of March 2013 in December 2015. Would you?

What does the Best Before Date on Canned Goods Mean?

Canned and tetra pak items are processed and packaged to prevent any microbial action from occurring inside the packaging. As long as the package is perfectly sealed and there are no punctures, the product inside will be safe from microbial action.  As a result, food inside this type of packaging should be safe for decades. However, the quality, flavor, color, texture and nutrient content will deteriorate over time. Therefore, you should rotate your cans and follow the first in, first out rule to ensure you don’t end up in this predicament of having to determine if canned goods are too old to eat.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency does not require Best Before Dates on any food with a shelf life longer than 90 days. Companies often choose to add Best Before Dates as indicators of quality on these types of products. They choose the date based on their best estimate as to when the quality (color, texture, nutrient content, etc) may not meet their promised standard. It does NOT mean that the product is not safe to use once the date has passed.

How to Decide if Canned & Tetra Pak Foods Are Safe to Eat?

As long as the packaging stays perfectly in tact, I would feel confident using what’s inside this type of packaging after the Best Before Date has passed. But you need to be confident that the package is perfectly in tact.
DO NOT eat canned food if the package is:
  • swollen
  • rusty
  • leaking or shows any stains that suggest leaking occurred at some point
  • badly dented
  • cracked, crimped or pinched
  • missing the safety seal (if the product had such a thing)
  • emitting any odors

These are all signs that the container may not be perfectly sealed anymore and once the seal is broken, no matter how tiny, microbial action that can lead to food spoilage can start up again. If your container shows any of these signs – Toss it, regardless of what the Best Before Date is.

The condition of the container is far more important to the safety of food in cans or tetra paks than the Best Before Date.  Regardless of the date, if the container has been damaged or compromised in any way, the safety of the food inside has been compromised as well.  For example a couple of weeks ago, I had juice boxes that were well before the Best Before Date, however, something was clearly wrong with one of the boxes. The juice box felt soft and squishy, not rigid like juice boxes usually do. It did not feel wet, nor did it have any stains or leaks. It just felt wrong. Even though it was still months before the Best Before Date, I decided not to use that particular juice box – I was in doubt, so I threw it out.

For canned food and tetra pak foods, assessing the container is key.  But remember even a tiny pin prick can compromise the safety of the food inside a container. Because pin pricks may be hard to spot, it’s important to think of how your container has been handled and stored. Has it been in stable conditions for it’s entire lifespan (dry, out of direct light, consistent temperature, etc.)? Was it part of an inheritance from your crazy relative who moved houses ten times and lined windowsills with canned food? Was it rolling around the bottom of your camper trailer for the last two years going through numerous temperature swings? Take these factors into consideration before you decide whether to eat or toss it. In case it isn’t obvious, I would NOT eat the camper trailer food or the crazy relative’s canned food. It may be safe, but I have my doubts and don’t have enough information, so I throw it out.
canned soup past BBD
Would you eat this today? General consensus is that canned food is safe for 2-3 years past its Best Before Date assuming can is good and storage conditions were good. After that, the quality would be pretty bad no one would want to eat it.

Want More Opinions on Canned Food?

Here are some sites that I visit if I’m not sure about the shelf life of a product:
  • EatbyDate is a searchable database for how long food really lasts. The authors of this site are unknown but they claim to rely on various sources including the USDA.
  • StillTasty.com is another searchable database for how long food really lasts. The authors of this site are unknown but they also claim to rely on various sources including the USDA. This site listed the greatest tolerance for foods I looked up.
  • Harvest Manitoba, Manitoba’s largest food bank’s statement about food past the Best Before Date.
  • FoodBanksCanada shares information about Best Before Dates and safety of food past BBDs.
  • FoodShare.org a food bank in Conneticut, US committed to a hunger free world also has a chart showing shelf life after BBD

What do you think? Would you eat canned food past its Best Before Date?  If you were looking for a definitive answer, I’m sorry, but there isn’t one. There are too many factors at play to make this a simple yes or no answer. And that’s why, I will end with the same line that so many other articles on this topic end with – if in doubt, throw it out.

Getty Stewart is a Professional Home Economist,  speaker, frequent media guest and writer dedicated to putting good food on tables and agendas.  She is the author of several recipe books on enjoying and preserving fruit, Founder of Fruit Share, a mom and veggie gardener. Sign up to get articles by Getty delivered to your inbox. You’ll get recipes, practical tips and great food information like this.

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2 Comments

    1. I’ll keep working on affordable recipes. Because I write and photograph food I make for my family, most of my recipes are for a family of four.

      Getty

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