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Pantry organization of non-perishable food items. [CREDIT: UF/IFAS, Tyler Jones]

Disaster preparedness: consider shelf-stable food safety

As you know, our official storm/hurricane season starts June 1. Have you begun to prepare? A good first step is to look in your pantry for shelf-stable foods.

Of course, what IS a shelf-stable food? And, how does that relate to food safety? Aren’t shelf-stable foods, by definition, safe to consume at any time?

Well, let’s get a definition for “shelf-stable” foods.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Services, foods can be called shelf-stable if they can be safely stored at room temperature; in other words, “on the shelf.” These products can include canned and bottled foods, country hams, jerky, rice, pasta, flour, sugar, spices, oils, aseptic and retort packaging, and other items that don’t require refrigeration until after opening.

That’s a start. But, what in the world is “aseptic or retort packaging”? Basically, with retort packaging, food is filled into pouches, sealed, and then sterilized by heating to extremely high temperatures. Aseptic packaging is similar, but in a different order. The food or liquid is sterilized by high heat, rapidly cooled, and then filled into sterilized containers.

So, we’re getting a broad picture of what qualifies as a shelf-stable food. Now, let’s refine it a bit: not all canned foods are shelf stable. Some canned items, such as ham and seafood, are not safe to eat at room temperature. You will see these items labeled as requiring refrigeration.

Now we have a better idea of what is a “shelf-stable” food. But, we’re not done. Shelf-stable or not, always pay attention to the date stamped on the can. Rotate foods using the FIFO method: First In, First Out. Keep this rotation active, and you shouldn’t have issues with mistakenly using an old, expired can.

So, here are a few things to be aware of with canned goods, as questions I frequently get:

Q. Is it safe to eat foods from cans that are dented?
A. That depends, if the can has a small dent but otherwise is in good shape, the food is safe to consume. But you want to discard cans with deep dents; that is, dents large enough that you can lay your finger into. Deep dents usually have sharp points and these points can damage the can enough to allow for bacteria to enter and grow. So, always discard cans dented this way.
Q. After opening a can, is it safe to refrigerate the unused portion of food in the can?
A. The answer is yes, you can safely refrigerate the unused food in the can. But, to preserve the optimum quality and flavor of the food, you should place the remaining food in a glass or plastic food safe container.
Q. If a can hisses when I open it, is the food safe to eat?
A. That also depends. Some cans will make a hissing sound when opened because they have been vacuum-packed and the noise you are hearing is a result of air pressure. This is normal, and there’s no need to worry. However, if a can hisses loudly and the contents of the can spurt out forcefully when opened, it is a strong indication that the food is unsafe and should be discarded immediately. If this does happen, never taste or use the food. Carefully place the can into a plastic garbage bag, discard, and thoroughly wash your hands and any surfaces the can contents might have touched.

Take some time to go through your pantry and note what foods you could safely use in a weather event. If you need to purchase some shelf-stable foods, keep in mind any dietary requirements, like getting items with lower salt and/or sugar. And, of course, purchase foods your family will enjoy.

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