How old are your home-canned foods?

Is it time to clean out the home-canned foods in the basement or pantry?

Taking a trip down to the basement or through the pantry of a home food preserver can be an adventure. Do the home-canned foods in the jars have a label? Are they dated? How long have they been in storage, and when and how were they preserved?

It gets even more difficult if you are cleaning out the home of another individual and find a basement or pantry full of home-preserved foods without knowing the food’s history. When answering consumer calls about home preserved foods, we hear many scenarios including: unlabeled jars, broken jars of food, oozing jars and food product inside the jars turning strange colors. Due to the concern of the botulinum toxin, a bacterium associated with home-canned foods, consumers should be cautious when assessing their old home-canned foods and consider how to safely dispose of anything that has become spoiled or unsafe.

The National Center for Home Food Preservation provides the following recommendations when identifying and handling spoiled canned foods:

  • Do not taste food from a jar with an unsealed lid or food that shows signs of spoilage.  You can more easily detect some types of spoilage in jars stored without screw bands. Growth of spoilage bacteria and yeast produces gas, which pressurizes the food, swells lids and breaks jar seals. As each stored jar is selected for use, examine its lid for tightness and vacuum. Lids with concave centers have good seals.
  • Next, while holding the jar upright at eye level, rotate the jar and examine its outside surface for streaks of dried food originating at the top of the jar. Look at the contents for rising air bubbles and unnatural color.
  • While opening the jar, smell for unnatural odors and look for spurting liquid and cotton-like mold growth (white, blue, black or green) on the food’s surface and underneath the lid.
  • Spoiled low-acid foods (such as canned vegetables, meats, fish, and including tomatoes), may exhibit different kinds of spoilage evidence or very little evidence. Therefore, all suspected containers of spoiled low-acid foods, including tomatoes, should be treated as having produced botulinum toxin and handled carefully in one of two ways:
    1. If the swollen metal cans or suspected glass jars are still sealed, place them in a heavy garbage bag. Close and place the bag in a regular trash container or dispose in a nearby landfill.
    2. If the suspected cans or glass jars are unsealed, open or leaking, they should be detoxified before disposal.

To learn more about how to determine what else in your pantry might be unsafe to eat, please read MSU Extension's article, "Is this food still good?"

Michigan State University Extension recommends labeling and dating every item that you preserve at home.  It is also recommended to only preserve about enough food to last you and your family for one year. This way you won’t find yourself with jar after jar of home-canned foods that get older each year in storage.

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