Here, where the mountains meet the plains at a junction called the Front Range, you are likely to hear conversations about storage food. I recently learned that my mother’s canning stored in the basement or storm cellar is now viewed as a sort of champagne level for storage food. Now, it more typically comes in vacuum-sealed packages that are said to be good for a few decades. For those of you who have not a clue what I am talking about, storage food is kept by folks who, for a variety of reasons, think the day will come when we’ll find grocery store shelves empty because some preemptive event has occurred — manmade, natural disaster, or whatever. expired_406x250Stocks of storage food are collected out of the conviction that some kind of life-altering event will occur at some point in our future. (It is also not uncommon to have a neighbor who is “packing,” but that refers to a permit for carrying a concealed weapon, which is another story.) If someone is storing food to survive some tumultuous event 25 years in the future, I say more power to them. I’ve often wondered how they know that stuff will still be good when they need it. That’s the reason I understand why those with canning skills are getting the recognition they deserve. Growing up, we did rely on what was  available in that storm cellar. During a Minnesota winter, canned peaches were about as close to sunshine as you could get. Back in the day, I think canning for the upcoming winter was common. Some items were probably put up for two or three seasons, but nobody was thinking two or three decades. This whole discussion about how long food lasts and what we do about it was raised in a story last week in Ohio’s Columbus Dispatch. It was a fascinating piece about how our reactions to a food label determine whether: a.) we acted too hastily and contributed to food waste, or 2.) we waited too long and are a clear and present danger to our own food safety. The Dispatch relied upon NSF International, the Ann Arbor, MI-based public health and safety organization, which last year did some important survey work to gauge how consumers use those “best by” or “sell by” dates on food labels. The findings were significant. About 36 percent of us toss food from our kitchen pantries and refrigerators before we should. That translates into $161 billion annually in wasted food, according to Jennifer Tong, an NSF food safety expert. Another 27 percent of consumers keep foods too long past their expiration dates and into times when they may become dangerous. Canned foodWho falls into each group? Those who are quick to toss are the younger consumers, and the ones who hold onto food too long are the middle-aged to elderly consumers. It seems we’ve turned making the call on a product’s shelf life into a tricky exercise. Discarding food too early contributes to the sin of food waste. Keeping it too long puts you at risk of exposure to harmful bacteria. Wow! What a choice! We probably need to quickly review this whole food label business. Except for infant formula, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not require any specific freshness information on the food label. But, according to NSF, here’s what is typically found on the food label: Expiration date or Use by date: Consumers should view these as the end-dates for use because food safety cannot be guaranteed beyond the dates listed. Sell by date: This is there so the retailer knows when the product should be removed from the shelf. Best Used By date: The product loses its peak quality and freshness after that date and should not be purchased. Unless it was frozen, any food found past its best-by date that has already been purchased should be discarded. The NSF survey found an amazing range of human behavior reactions to the food label, some very trusting and some not even trusting with verification. Meat, dairy and produce present consumers with a constant struggle: what to keep and what to throw out. NSF says uncooked meats, dairy and produce pose the greatest food safety threat when kept too long. The Michigan-based researchers found the 27 percent kept meat, 22 percent kept dairy products, and 37 percent kept produce beyond the expiration or use-by dates. One of the more peculiar findings in the NSF survey was the mistrust that exists among friends and family members. According to the findings, 39 percent of the respondents have declined an invitation to dine at the home of a friend or family member because they didn’t trust the safety or quality of the food that they would have been served. The concern was highest among those aged 45-54, with 48 percent saying they had declined food offers in other people’s homes. About 35 percent of younger consumers, aged 18-34, said they had declined such offers. Interestingly, men and women throw out food for mostly the same reasons, with women being only slightly more cautious. Women are a bit quicker than men to throw out expired meat, canned goods and pre-washed vegetables. But both men and women rely on changes in appearance, color or texture more than the date on the package. As for storage food, the Internet and paid weekend radio routinely pitch meals with a 25-year shelf life. “Freeze-dried,” “vacuum-packed” and “just add water” are the words that come up a lot in those advertisements. Here on the Front Range, there isn’t any panic about doomsday being just around the corner, but many are practicing preparedness. Some religions encourage it, especially the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS), which follows a teaching to “prepare every needful thing.” The LDS church encourages its members to “prepare for adversity in life” with a three-month supply of food and water and holding money in reserve. LDS members get this advice on food storage: “As you develop a longer-term storage, focus on food staples such as wheat, rice, pasta, oats, beans, and potatoes that can last 30 years or more.” The LDS food storage guide does warn about deadly botulism poisoning that “may result if moist products are stored in packaging that reduces oxygen.” Metal cans are good for long-term food storage as long as seams are checked carefully and periodically. Cans typically carry a best-by date, but only to satisfy consumers. Canned food is safe to eat pretty much indefinitely, just so long as it isn’t damaged. When you have a younger population throwing good food away and older folks keeping food — especially fresh meat, dairy, and produce — far longer than they should, it means the food label isn’t working. Instead, it’s contributing to food waste and putting others at risk of foodborne illnesses.

  • Dommy

    So supermarket-bought canned beans, soups, etc. purchased for home storage will last “pretty much indefinitely”? That’s good to know.
    I’m wondering if room storage temperature factors into this. Like if the power goes out during the summer for an extended length of time.

    • Gary

      No, unless there are temperatures extremes such as freeze-thaw cycles or excessive heat. As the writer of the article stated as long as the seams of the cans are intact and not rusting, splitting, etc then the can is good. Another sign of a bad can is any bloating which means C. Bot. is growing and a definite food safety risk. Any bloating can should be thrown out immediately.

  • Kitsy WooWoo

    “Growing up, we did rely on what was available in that storm cellar.
    During a Minnesota winter, canned peaches were about as close to
    sunshine as you could get. Back in the day, I think canning for the
    upcoming winter was common.”

    Ah yes. I grew up next door, in Wisconsin, and I remember the temperature once got to 52 below zero (back before they factored in “wind chill”). My mother used to do a lot of heavy-duty canning of the veggies my dad grew in his garden. She also canned peaches, pears and applesauce. (I had to help with this.). All those glass Mason jars took up a lot of space in the kitchen, but the effort was worth it — especially when OUR bitter cold winters rolled around. Our small house had a dirt basement (where we stored the goodies), and we often found arrowheads down there. Wisconsin was Indian country, doncha know. 🙂

  • Katy

    Just one correction to your last statement – the food label is not “putting others at risk of foodborne illness”. IGNORING the label is putting them at risk. As phrased, the implication seems to be that the labels are doing no good, which is certainly not true. Without them, many more people would keep food too long. Personally, I find the dates to be extremely helpful, so I hope you are not advocating doing away with them.

  • I grew up on a farm and fondly remember the home canned fruits and veggies. I remember the galvanized tubs filled with fresh cut corn from the cob. Now, this is the way to truly preserve.

    If you’re buying because you expect some cataclysm, well, you have more problems than food expiration.

    I don’t waste, and I don’t risk food safety. I buy what I need, and only enough so I know it will all be used. I use the expiration dates at the store, but not always to buy the freshest. I buy what I know will be used before the end date, but I also try to buy older items where feasible, to eliminate waste at the store.

    Since I don’t buy meat for the home, that particular issue isn’t a problem. I will, though, keep eggs a couple of weeks beyond the best buy date (refrigerated, and then fully cooked when used). I never buy produce until I know it will be used that week. The only exception: potatoes. I store them with apples, which helps keep the potatoes usable, longer.

    It isn’t that difficult and the labels can be a very effective guide. We just have to get our act together.

  • DocB

    I’m one of those “crazy” folks that stock up. I’m not preparing for the next ice age, I’m preparing for the next severe storm. I have a generator on my house and enough food and water to last a week. I also live 20 minutes from the nearest small store in “good” weather.
    I keep a small stock of canned and boxed foods and rotate them throughout the year. I have looked into the foods with a twenty-five year shelf life but they don’t sound interesting (not appetizing and large containers). I would never sell a product past it’s expiration but I also would not be too concerned about eating a can of green beans that expired last month. I am very conscious of discarding luncheon meat that is not consumed within 3 days of opening.
    My food is in a sheltered area of the basement that is cool and dark. If food is improperly stored, it may not be good even if not expired. Even the best preservation methods can’t negate the damage caused by severe temperature abuse.