How long can you store canned foods

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September 10, 2010

By Bob Difley

Food_on_shelf-public-domainIn last week’s blog I wrote about keeping our onboard food stores save from pathogens. But the other half of the story is, how long can we keep stored canned, bulk, and frozen, foods before they either go bad or transmogrify into something else.  The good news is that most canned food will last for two years and longer. Even the two year figure is arbitrary.  If the can’s seal is not broken it can last for years and years longer.

How much longer? There was a report of a canned meat opened after 118 years and it was fine (canned meats can last the longest). The age of the can is not the big question–after all how long are you going to keep cans in your RV? Five years, ten years? Doubtful. The cans will outlast your RV.

But to be safe, if you follow these storage hints on food you intend to store for emergencies, or when you’re trying to stretch a couple more days into your boondocking trips, you can eliminate your food safety worries.

  • Write the date of purchase on the top of the can with a permanent marker.
  • Store in cool dry compartment. We RVers have to deal with bigger temperature swings than at home, but the cooler you can keep the cans the less chance they will have of overheating.
  • Low acid foods (soups without tomatoes, carrots, potatoes, pumpkin, peas) will last longer than highly acidic food (tomatoes, fruit, and foods with a lot of vinegar in them).
  • Before using, inspect can for dents (a can with a large dent can have a broken seal even if you can’t see it), bulging (a bad sign–throw these out immediately), and leaking (also throw out).
  • Never eat canned food that has a strange odor, color, or flavor, or that spurts when it is opened. Chuck it.

The Food Reference website states:  Canned food retains its safety and nutritional value well beyond two years, but it may have some variation in quality, such as a change of color and texture. Canning is a high-heat process that renders the food commercially sterile. Food safety is not an issue in products kept on the shelf or in the pantry for long periods of time. In fact, canned food has an almost indefinite shelf life at moderate temperatures (75° F and below). Canned food as old as 100 years has been found in sunken ships and it is still microbiologically safe!

In canned foods, preservatives are used to maintain quality. The canning process keeps it safe. If a product is correctly processed, it should remain safe until opened or the seal is broken. The U.S. Army has found that canned meats, vegetables and jam were in “excellent states of preservation” after 46 years.

For other bulk foods, packaged and frozen, this chart will offer some broad guidelines on storage of these foods.

For more RVing and boondocking tips, visit my Healthy RV Lifestyle website and also check out my ebooks, BOONDOCKING: Finding the Perfect Campsite on America’s Public Lands, Snowbird Guide to Boondocking in the Southwestern Deserts, and 111 Ways to Get the Biggest Bang our of your RV Lifestyle Buck.

Leave a Reply


  1. Jim G

    Sorry Bob but I will have to keep my wife from reading your posting or I run the risk of having her serve me some 15 year old spam, (not the e-mail version)

    On a more serious note, how about the shelf life for bottled water if it is still sealed and stored at room temperature?

  2. Ron Butler


    When we sold our sailboat and unloaded the canned goods from it, we had a 6 month supply of canned food for the rv!! We have found that grocery stores are much easier and more numerous in the rv than when sailing the north coast of BC!!

    Good article

  3. Debbie McMillan

    the only problem I have had with cans is with canned evaporated milk (to use in pumpkin pies etc. ) so I put that in the fridge now.
    thanks for good article!

  4. Alexandre Tarcitano

    Good advice at all and I`d like to add that we must be careful inspecting cans for dents. They not only present signs as Bob reported but dents can break internal insulation in the cans developing botulism ( I think it is the name. I don´t know if it´s correct in English, I´m brazilian and I lost my dictionary….) Few years ago some people were poisoned due to buying canned vegetables and didn´t care about dents. It took some time for our FDA realize the source of the problem was caused for internal rupture of the protection making vegetables in contact with bare can.

  5. Thomas Becher

    it’s amazing that the local food pantry THROWS OUT food that has a past due sell by or best used by —– date on them but we can still eat them. I have Kraft salad dressing that is over 6 years old that I still eat and many other cans of food that are more than 2 years past best by dates.No sickness yet.

  6. Hockeyguy08

    Always err on the side of caution. We all have something that we bought on a whim that is in the back of the pantry or cupboard. As we are seasonal campers we tend to take all our stuff home at the end of October and re-stock at the beginning of May each year. Some things actually go back up from one season to the next only to sit there for the full season again. I try to have a meal plan sort of when the season starts but my wife will often improvise and knock the plan completely out of whack. We often stop at a favourite supermarket on the way up and they have foods that sometimes cause us to completely change our plans.

  7. Denis

    With the extreme seasonal temperatures in northeastern states, I always worry that the cans will freeze over night or get overheated when the temperature gets in the high 90s. I always wondered if subjecting a can food to these swings in temperature could cause them to go bad. Does anybody know?

  8. Denis says: “With the extreme seasonal temperatures in northeastern states, I always worry that the cans will freeze over night or get overheated when the temperature gets in the high 90s. I always wondered if subjecting a can food to these swings in temperature could cause them to go bad.”

    As long as the can is intact, that there are no signs of a break, leaking, or severe rusting, the food inside will be OK. The one caveat is that it may lose some of its color or taste over repeated heating and chilling, but it will still remain safe to eat.

  9. I remember reading of canned food from the Second World War being opened 50 years later and being perfectly edible.

    In many countries regulatory authorities insist that a shelf life date be put on packaged food. In order to produce the scientific data necessary to prove the shelf life packs are stored in similar conditions to real life and a sample pack is taken out and opened and its contents tested. Since it is very rare for anyone to open a tin past 2 years there is no incentive for the firm involved to carry on doing expensive testing past this point. That does not mean that canned food doesn’t continue to be edible way past that date.

    If a can is perforated it may become infected with bacteria very quickly.

  10. RayQ

    Folks I would first investigate the topic of can or package foods and the toxic chemicals which has given rise to illness. You can Google the topic. Ray

  11. Katiebug

    “There was a report of a canned meat opened after 118 years” where did you find this information?

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