Canned Food Shelf Life – How Long Does it Last After Expiration Date?

One of the biggest mistakes that beginner preppers make with emergency food storage is forgetting that it can go bad.

Yes, even canned foods can go bad! 

The last thing you want to happen after a disaster is to reach for your food stockpiles only to realize they are all inedible.   

So just how long does canned food last? And how do you make sure your canned emergency food supply stays safe to eat?

Canned Food Expiration Dates

Contrary to what most people think (or are led to think), there are NO federal laws about expiration dates on food.  The only exception is for infant formula, which is required to have an expiration date.

Some states do have their own laws requiring sell-by dates on meat and dairy products – but none legally require it on canned foods.

So what are those “best by” and “use by” dates on canned foods?

Those are arbitrary dates that the food manufacturer slapped on their products.

In some cases, such as with fresh milk, it does make sense to have an expiration date.  No one likes to buy a gallon of milk only to realize it has already started to spoil.

However, with canned foods, the expiration date has nothing to do with whether the food is safe to eat!

canned food expiration date

Canned Foods Are Safe to Eat for Decades

Let’s say that a disaster has struck.  You and your family are starving to death.  You miraculously find an old can of beans tucked away… But the expiration date past 5 years ago.  Do you eat the expired canned food?

I’d say YES!  Eat the expired canned food!!!

(though for legal reasons, I have to warn you not to eat expired food)

The National Food Processors Association (NFPA) is a research group that looks into issues like food expiration dates and freshness. They once got their hands on some old cans of food.

One of the scientists analyzed a can of corn from 1934 and found it to be pretty much as good as a new can of corn.  The only difference in the analysis was that some nutrient levels were lower.  The same was found true of very old cans of oysters, tomatoes, and red peppers.

Since canned foods are sterilized and then sealed in an air-tight environment, they won’t breed bacteria.  The reason for the expiration date has to do with freshness and taste.  After a while of sitting in water, the canned foods can get mushy and lose their flavor.  They’ll still be safe to eat, just taste gross.

According to the USDA, high-acid canned goods (tomatoes, citrus fruits etc.) will stay fresh for 12 – 18 months and low-acid canned goods (meats, most veggies, etc.) will stay fresh for 2 to 5 years.

Again, you can still eat canned foods after this time period.  They might not taste as fresh as when they were canned and may have lost some vitamins, but they will still probably be safe to eat.

When NOT to Eat Expired Canned Foods

In general, canned foods can last for decades after their expiration date. But this doesn’t mean they are always safe to eat.

If air manages to leak into the canned food, such as if the seal breaks, then it could become contaminated.  Botulism is a big risk here.

Botulism, which is caused by the bacteria Clostridium botulinum, releases toxins that can paralyze or kill you.  Botulism used to be fairly common because of bad home canning practices. The bacteria weren’t killed before canning the food and they would multiply within the can.

You can’t see or taste botulism in canned food. However, there are other signs that a can of food might have gone bad.

Exterior Signs a Can of Food Has Gone Bad:

  • The sides of the can or its lid are bulging
  • The can is rusty or corroded
  • The can is leaking food

Interior Signs a Can of Food Has Gone Bad:

  • There are small bubbles in the liquid inside the can
  • Bad odors
  • The food has become mushy
  • The liquid is cloudy
  • The contents explode after the can is opened

If you see any of these signs that the canned food has gone bad, do NOT eat it!!!  Don’t risk your or your family’s health!

Read more about the signs of botulism in canned food.

Never eat damaged or dented cans like these!
Never eat damaged or dented cans like these!

Rotate Your Canned Foods

Just because canned food can last for decades, it doesn’t mean you should let it sit around for decades.  To play it safe, make sure your canned foods are fresh by rotating them.

The best advice I can give for making sure your canned foods (and other survival foods) are rotated is this:

Only stockpile emergency foods which you normally eat on a daily basis!

For example, if you don’t usually eat rice and beans, don’t make these part of your 30 day emergency food stockpile.  You’ll never rotate through your stockpile before it expires.

Plus, who wants to suddenly start eating a bunch of weird new foods in the wake of a disaster?

It would be small comfort to have your favorite foods stockpiled to get you through the event.

See more about Prepper Foods.

So long as your emergency foods are foods that you normally eat, you shouldn’t have a problem with rotating.  Just use the “new-in-the-back” system: each new food item gets put behind the old ones.  Anyone who has done a stint working in a grocery store knows all about this!

For canned foods, you can also install a can dispenser in your pantry.  The cans come out of an opening on the bottom.  New cans go on the top.  Can rotating systems are also pretty easy to make. See our guide to the best can organizers.

Can rotating system. You can also make one yourself easily.
Can rotating system. You can also make one yourself easily.

Rotation is obviously also important for your other survival foods, like dry grains, dry beans, and packaged foods.

It is a good idea to write the purchase dates on them before you put them in your pantry (behind all the older foods you previously bought).

The more organized you keep your pantry, the easier it will be to keep these rotated.

Are you rotating the cans which are part of your emergency foods?


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Leave a comment

  1. Question: what are the suggestions on shelf life for pancake mix, flour, baking powder, baking soda powdered milk then dry beans and peas. What about pet foods? Any other free advice. I’m new to this.

    • We’ve got articles covering how to store all of those things (except pet food — we’ll have to get on that one). Just use the search feature to look for them. 🙂

  2. 6FCL 07 E2516 D310

    Can you tell me the expiration date on this can. Top has only a very few showing signs of rust. Can is in good condition with no dents. Thank you.

    • I have no idea. You’ll probably have to contact the manufacturer. I personally wouldn’t eat food from rusted cans though. :/

  3. I just found some canned smoked oysters that might have been around for 10+ years. There is no date on the box or can. No signs of bulge etc. I opened a tin and the oysters seem to be fine. Tasted a few too, no issues so far. Wonder if I should just toss them?

    • Well, if you already tasted a few and were fine, then the rest should be fine too. 😀 Of course, I can’t recommend that anyone eat expired food because of all the legal reasons. :/

  4. Wow thank you for advice recently a tenant moving out gave me her canned goods and I could see they were expired several months ago and was worried about eating them now I know I’m fine

  5. One of my favorite canned foods to dehydrate are diced tomatoes from costco. I get the #10 cans, dehydrate the tomatoes then grind them up for terrific tomator powder (many uses) and I drink the tomato juice in the can, which is delicious.

  6. Stephanie about your pancake mix. I know flour sitting in my cabinet will have a stale taste. Also, the leavening(baking powder) looses the ability to rise. If it’s in an unopened can, you could open the can and do the smell, taste, etc test. If you do use the mix, I would add baking powder, 1tsp/1cup mix. I’ve recently decided to look at old cans, open and dehydrate contents. I feel dehydrated fruits, veg, beans, etc are better off dried than canned. I found several cans from 2013. Almost half way through giant can, no bad effects. Dehydrating giant can of cling peaches now. They look, smell, taste good. I’ll see what happens after dehydration.

  7. So I checked my stockpile and recently found Thrive canned Pancake mix, flour (whole wheat and white), butter flakes, chicken and beef bouillon which were all had a shelf life which apparently expired in 2015-2017. To use or not to use? Thoughts from experienced peepers? I’m so disappointed because I never would’ve bought these items if I had known what a short shelflife they had. My other items are all good for 25 to 30 years.

    • Sorry foiled by autocorrect while typing with a child in my lap. That’s would be preppers lol. All cans are intact, no dents, stored in a cold, dark dry storage area since purchase in 2011-2012.

  8. Usually old cans have a tin taste but if one is starving???
    I would add honey. Bought honey and it is good till 2039. Seeds…farm and wild.
    Wild swiss chard…my boss catches it now and then growing behind the apartment building. It is only one weed…and it has been there for four years as I gather the seeds. My son teases, “How are you going to carry all this stuff?” “Get plywood, make a square and put it on top of the car.”

    • Honey has no expiration date at all. They have found honey in Egyptian tombs that tested edible after thousands of years. All honey does is crystalize that can be reconstituted by simply heating it.


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