You worked hard in your garden. You butchered your own meat. Then you went through the labor-intensive, time-consuming process of canning it, but how can you tell for sure that your food is safe to eat when you open it?
There are many things that can go wrong during the canning and preserving process and eating spoiled food can make you extremely sick and can even kill you. Today we’re going to talk about how you can tell if your food has gone bad.
Home-canned vegetables are the most common cause of botulism, according to the CDC. That sounds like a big deal, but when you look at the numbers, it makes eating home-canned food much less scary. From 1996-2008, there were only 18 cases of botulism reported to be from home-canned foods. Still, that was only the reported cases so there were likely more than that.
Living in a place near the ocean where local seafood places regularly hand out raging cases of food poisoning, I can tell you that you DO NOT want to experience this. Even if you live through it, you’ll be praying for death while experiencing it!
Now, let’s talk about how you can tell if the safety of your food has been compromised.
Look at It and Smell It
If your canned food looks cloudy or slimy or it smells “off”, don’t eat it.
Many people suffer under the misconceptions that boiling food kills all the bad bacteria or that bacteria can’t survive without air. Unfortunately, neither is always true.
Yes, boiling kills many bacteria, and many do die without air, but there are deadly ones such as the clostridium botulinum bacteria that boiling water won’t kill. You have to pressure-can low acid veggies and meat in order to kill the bad bugs. This isn’t something to mess around with – it can kill you.
The Lid Bulges
If the lid of your can is bulging up, it’s a pretty good sign that whatever is in it has gone bad. This is most likely due to the fact that you didn’t process it properly. You probably didn’t get the food hot enough to kill the bacteria in it before you sealed it up.
Though the process of canning is supposed to preserve food, most people don’t realize that they can actually seal bacteria in with the food.
Release of Pressure when You Open It
There is always going to be that little sound of depressurizing when you break the seal of your canned food but if it’s more than just a pop, you may have a problem. Buildup of gas inside the jar is a sign that there are anaerobic bacteria in it. This is the same thing that causes the lid to bulge.
You may also notice bubbles in the jar before you open it. Be extremely careful because all of these are signs of bacteria in your food.
Lid Can Be Pushed In and It Pops Back Up Again
If you push lightly on the lid of your jar and it pushes down, then pops back up again, your jar didn’t properly seal. That means that the food has basically been sitting out for however days, weeks, months or years that it’s been on the shelf.
How long would you leave food in a bowl on the table before you deemed it unsafe to eat? Not long, right? If the lid isn’t sealed, pitch it.
Mold on the Lid
If you unseal your jar and see black, blue, gray, white or green mold on it, pitch it. Even if the food doesn’t show any signs of mold, the fungus or bacteria is most definitely in there. This food may smell funky, too.
Foam on Top of the Food
This is another sign that anaerobic bacteria such as the kind that causes botulism is present in the food. Unless you want to end up in a world of hurt, or even dead, don’t eat it.
This is especially a concern in meats and low-acid foods such as green beans, beets and corn. Again, pressure-can them.
Damage to the Container
If the jar or can appears to be cracked, damaged, bulging or misshapen or the seal is damaged, throw it away. Often after a few years, the lid of the home-canned food or the entire container of store-bought food can rust or erode to the point that it allows bacteria in. Don’t risk it. You have a little more leeway with home-canned goods because you can test to see if it’s still sealed but if a store-bought can is rusty, you don’t really have any way to tell if it’s good or not.
On another note here, don’t ever buy canned goods that are damaged. Often dented cans are on sale; that’s because people in the know are aware that the safety of the food may be compromised. There are also toxins in the liners of the cans that can be released when the can is bent, so that’s another reason to pay full price if you’re buying at the store.
If you want to save money, do it by couponing, not by buying damaged goods.
Food or Juice Is Leaking Down the Can
This actually logically applies more to store-bought canned foods than home-canned foods because you’re going to see other signs such as a broken seal in home-canned foods if the food is actually leaking out of the can. Not necessarily so with store bought cans, though.
If you pick up a can and there’s food on the label or the outside of the can, inspect it closely. It could be that another can broke and spilled on it, but the can itself could be leaking, too. If you can’t see for sure, don’t risk it.
How to Dispose of Spoiled Food
In a SHTF situation, botulism could be lethal so it’s imperative that you don’t let the bacteria spread. It can be absorbed through the skin as well as ingested so you need to be extremely careful with the clean-up process. Thank goodness, good old fashioned bleach will do the trick here. At a 10:1 ratio (10 parts water to 1 part bleach), you can safely assume that the bacteria is dead.
If the jar or can is still sealed, throw the entire container away. If not, dispose of the jars, food and clean-up materials using gloves so that it doesn’t have contact with your skin. DO NOT put the food on your compost pile!
The botulinum toxin is exactly that: a toxin. It attacks your central nervous system and causes difficulty swallowing or speaking, facial weakness on one or both sides, dry mouth, drooping eyelids, trouble breathing, muscle weakness, blurred vision, fatigue, vomiting, paralysis and even death. It, and bacteria like it, are nothing to mess around with, especially in a SHTF situation.
Of course, the very young and very old are going to be more susceptible to major illness or death, but even a mild case can be avoided by recognizing the signs of food spoilage and cleaning the area properly.
Pay attention when you open your foods and take every precaution when you’re canning. As they say, the devil is in the details!
If you have any other signs of food spoilage or advice to give about canning or preserving safely, please share your information with us in the comments section below!
This article has been written by Theresa Crouse for Survivopedia.
John | September 3, 2015
Thanks for the info. If a person is in a SHTF situation and they run out of bleach, would vinegar be a substitute?
Charles P Foley | September 3, 2015
This one has more to do with cooking safety. Every year around the holidays you hear of someone setting their house on fire from a grease fire caused by putting a turkey in the oil and boiling it over. On TV they mention ways to slowly lower the turkey into the oil. Still not Safe. Just turn the fire off till the bird is in the oil and the bubbling has settled down. No fire under the kettle, no fire if there is an overflow. Relight the burner when things settle down. It’s just simple common sense.
Dave Rogers | September 3, 2015
We enjoy the info you send. Is it OK to send the info to friends? Most of the products sold on web sites like yours loose potential buyers. You do overselling by taking to long to present your close. People interested in buying will buy at the peak of the sale. You actually talk them out of your product by taking to long to close. This is my opinion , but I’ve done very well selling.
Sue F. | September 3, 2015
Very good article. I just prepared beef jerky for what I hope is long term storage. Please comment if you have any suggestions.
The key, I am told, to long term storage is making sure the beef is as acidic as possible. I made a marinade up of approx. 1 Cup
5% White vinegar (higher concentration up to 18% is even better), 1/4 cup Durkee’s Red Hot sauce or any non sugar; preferably vinegar based hot sauce,
some ground ginger, dry mustard, dry oregano leaves Cumin and about 2 Tbsp of soy sauce and a few drops of liquid smoke (the no sugar/molasses added kind).
Don’t add any kind sugar. NO OIL!
I sliced the beef up thin and then marinaded about 36-48 hours in the refrigerator, stirring 3-4 times daily.
Before I started the dehydrating process, I placed strips on a wire rack inside a baking sheet and popped into a PREHEATED 300 degree oven for about 10 mins
to kill any and all bacteria/mold etc. I am also told that drying meats in a dehydrator alone could cause big problems with bacteria growth. Pre cook meat first!
After meat was heated to a good temp I removed tray from oven and sprayed a solution of 8 oz water to 1/4 tsp of Potassium Sorbate (a food preservative
used in wine making and easily found on the internet ) on both sides of the strips. I then reduced the oven to 160 on convection and started the drying process
for approx. 3 hours. I had to rig my oven by sticking 2 spoon ends into the locking mechanism to keep it running with the door ajar; done by stuffing a couple hot pads between door
and oven frame.
Meat came out crispy and easily chew-able, not that hard as leather, kill your teeth kind of jerky and it was BONE dry; best for long term storage.
I then made sure Ball Jar/Lids were water sterilized then heated in oven before transferring meat via sterile tongs into the jar. I made up a desiccant (moisture remover) of
FOOD GRADE Diatomaceous Earth (pure silica) in a coffee filter (store bought ones are good too) and placed in the jar and Vacuumed sealed the jar. Although in an O2
free container, there is no moisture as well so hopefully this jerky lasts awhile on the shelf and free of Botulism.
I lifted this preparation process from Countryboy123 at SurvivalistBoard.com go there to get complete instructions.
Cheryl Turtle | April 6, 2017
In becoming a medical laboratory technician, I took three microbiology courses, including pathogenic, and I’d label you a germaphobe. I used to make beef jerky with a Japanese plum marinade: jelly, soy sauce, vinegar, and many spices. No chemical preservatives, no precooking in oven, no sterilizing, no dessicants, and no adverse effects were suffered by the dozen people who partook.
I put aseptic techniques into practice, everything as clean as soap and water got it. Salt is the traditional way to inhibit bacterial growth on jerky, so I sprinkled both sides of the strips before laying them in dehydrator. They weren’t all that thin, and I avoided drying to crispness; jerky should bend, not break. I used top round, but my cousin uses wild game like duck and elk; again, no one has suffered any ill effects from consuming his jerky.
For long term storage, I vacuum sealed Food Saver bags, and then froze them. What we expected to consume within a week went in zipper seal bags in the refrigerator. That’s it!
Andrea | September 4, 2015
Ok so I buy at dent n bents every month. We’ve done it for over 5 years now… Cans, cereal, toothpaste, you name it, we’ve bought it. Other than an occasional missed expiration date where the food went bad, we’ve had little to no problems and thankfully never got sick.
Jj | October 12, 2016
Good luck to you and yours! But for me and mine, it’s just not worth the risk.:(
Ben | September 4, 2015
Decent article but a whole lot of fluff. If you can your own foods make sure to pressure can to obtain high heat of at least 240 degrees or at make sure the acid level is high enough to kill the bacteria that causes botulism. Also once the jars have cooled down, remove the rings before storing and don’t stack jars on top of each other. The rings and stacking can keep lids sealed that normally would have popped once bacteria started growing. Get a good canning book like The Ball Blue Book of Canning. These type of books when followed properly will tell you how to avoid contamination.
barbara jockers | September 7, 2015
Hmmm…..If proper precautions were used could the stuff be used to dip the tips of arrows as a defensive measure?
Rose | September 8, 2015
Both my 20 year old son & I got sick while eating away from home. Different times. Both times a small amount of grape jelly had us up and going in 5 to 15 minuets. We weren’t at 100% but 80% was way better than laying down groaning. There was a study maybe 8 years ago or more that was reported on a news break on my radio. They discovered that one drop of grape juice can kill a vat of salmonella. I suspect it works for more situations than salmonella. We used jelly instead of juice, because that was all we could get our hands on, that had grape in it.~Enjoy your health~Rose
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Christina Satterfield | July 15, 2016
I canned green beans today. My pressure cooker would not go above 4 lb. Of pressure on high heat and after 20 minutes with weight on. I finally turned off the heat and allowed them to cool and removed the jars. They all sealed. Are they safe to eat being they didn’t get up to the 10lb.s of pressure as recommended, or should I throw them away?
Los | August 7, 2016
I do buy damaged cans, but I know what to look for. Never buy a can that is dented near or on the rim or seal. Look to see if the ends are bulging. A can that is slightly dented is ok a severely dented can isn’t. You can save a lot of money by buying these types of items, but you have to inspect them carefully and use them as soon as possible, they are not good candidates for food storage, unless you either re-can the contents in the case of #10 can or dry the contents. I know some Wil totally disagree with me, but the reality is that people will buy these, so I would rather speak up and give some pointers than not snd someone come to harm. GMA
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leo | April 15, 2017
I buy 3 cans today, everyone has bubbles, also the third (lentils) made a little “pst” when I opened it. I’m afraid, should I throw them?
Debra Lowry | April 17, 2017
When you store your own preserved food in glass jars, follow the Ball Blue Book for advice. Low acid vegetables usually call for more salt or vinegar for storage. Certain foods DEMAND a pressure cooker, not an open kettle method. ALSO DO take off the canning rings. IF your cans froze, the vacuum is lost. They MIGHT appear to be resealed with a vacuum even if the rings are left on! That food is compromised and should be discarded.
Ashlie | May 7, 2017
I bought some tacos and then I went to get the hot sauce from my cabinet which I’ve used already but I haven’t used it in like 8 months. when I opened the top of the bottle a lot of air came out of it & I was surprised because I’ve never heard that before. but I still dumped it all over the tacos and ate one of the tacos and put the rest in the fridge and 20 minutes later my stomach had the worst feeling in the world. I never had a feeling like that before. I was going to go to the hospital. But 10 minutes later I took 3 Tylenol and I went to get some water. asssss soonnn as I took one sip of water, that hurt feeling in my stomach went away. It was like a fire in my stomach and the water came down and put it out. basically what I’m trying to say is do you think that feeling I had was because of the hot sauce?
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Elizabeth | October 28, 2019
It’s a wonder if I’m not dead! When I was married to my ex husband, his uncle made a pot of home made vegetable beef soup. He invited the family over, about 10 of us! After we all ate the soup he proclaimed…. “Do you all know what you have just ate? Dear old Grandma’s home canned tomatoes in the soup!” He went on to explain that he had found a stash of his mother’s canned goods still out in the barn and that he had been using them and stating Grandma is still with us by using her canned goods. Grandma had been dead for 18 YEARS! I instantly felt nauseated and felt like we ALL WERE GONNA DIE! My ex’s mother was still eating canned peaches from 18 years too that her mother had canned!
The tomatoes in the soup looked pink and spongy!
I kept debating whether to go to the ER to have my stomach pumped out! But thank God none of us got sick!!! I never ate anything else made by his Uncle! We all could have died!!!
me | March 1, 2020
If it was bad the bacteria would have produced enough gas to pop the lid in a month or so. After years the food may lose some texture, color, and possibly flavor, but if the seal was intact, there was little risk.
Dr Greenthumb | September 30, 2021
Hello. I am living in a place with lots of olive trees. Have a few in front of my place. The neighbors ask if they can pick them. Then they give me some. I went to medical school so I understand about the risks. Typically they give me some in a jar of various types. Once it was in a 2 liter soda bottle. I always thank them but I never consume them. When they ask me later I say it was good. It is just easier for me this way than to try and educate these people about botulism i am used to the store bought variety anyway, which I prefer. I have more confidence the store variety is safely prepared and I know it is fresh. I highly doubt any of the people here use a pressure canning method for their canning Sometimes they take the excess olives to the city and sell them to a company for processing i dont mind if they make some money because it is a bit of work to pick them. And they are doing me a favor because eventually they fall from the tree and make a mess everywhere when I walk on them. So I never ask these people for money for the harvest. I could tell them I do not want the olives from them but the people here seem overly sensitive and they would be offended if i refused. For example if someone invites me for tea and I do not go then they take it personally. Also if I do not call or talk to someone in awhile here they seem to get offended. Which I find rather ironic because if they really wish to talk they can call me. Also ironic is that a few of my neighbors are retired nurses, doctors, or their children are doctors so you think they would have a little more knowledge about the possible health dangers. But I am like a foreigner here and they have been doing things like this for a long time so they probably think it ks very safe. And I don’t really feel comfortable questioning their metbods or telling them it is not safe. Life can be easier sometimes when we avoid conflicts, even if it occasionally means we must lie or play stupid. Great read and sorry for not posting a new comment. I could only locate the reply buttons.
Karol | January 2, 2022
Thank you for this article. But I am now freaking out to be honest. I went to get something from the pantry today and was hit with a strong, sharp smell. It turned out a can of hearts of palm went bad. The lid had popped off. And when I went to throw it out, I saw that the bottom was really bulged. And some liquid had spilled on the shelf. Some of it got on my hand when I went to throw it out. I double bagged it and then washed my hands. I then cleaned the shelf with soap and water, and put baking soda down. But everything still smells. Should I use vinegar to clean the shelf? And I obviously didn’t eat it, but I am still worried after reading this. Should I be worried health wise from the smell, spores etc…? I’ve never had this happen before. And is it safe to consume the foods that were near and around it (many cans, but also boxes of pasta, tea, etc?) Thanks for any help with this. And Happy New Year.