A gentleman who regularly gets food from the Wise Area Relief Mission (WARM) recently brought to the newspaper office a can of sweet peas he’d received in his box of free groceries.
They were dated, “Best by May 23, 2003” – a shade over 11 years ago.
He wanted the newspaper to do a story – to inquire about the safety of the groceries being donated to and distributed by the Decatur food pantry, and to warn people to check the dates on the food they eat.
So, we did.
In a nutshell, the peas are just fine.
WARM, the United States Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, and the Messenger staff say so.
The USDA web site says, “Canned foods are safe indefinitely as long as they are not exposed to freezing temperatures, or temperatures above 90 F (32.2 C). If the cans look OK, they are safe to use.
“Discard cans that are dented, rusted, or swollen.”
The can brought to the Messenger office, it should be noted, looked perfectly fine. There were no dents or scratches anywhere on the can, and the label was intact – although graphically, a little outdated.
Ren Ashmore, director of WARM, said she wishes the gentleman would have simply brought the can back or asked someone at the food bank.
“We try to watch for products that are really out of date,” she said. “If it is dented, opened or dirty of course we throw that away – but canned goods, in good shape, don’t expire.
“They just don’t.”
Ashmore said WARM distributed 200,000 pounds of food from January through the end of April, with a full-time staff of two and a corps of dedicated volunteers.
“The majority of the food we get is not brand-new food,” she said.
She said a lot of WARM’s food comes through the Tarrant Area Food Bank, which gets bulk donations from major food chains. Those chains cycle food off their shelves when it goes out of date – but the meat and poultry gets frozen immediately, and the canned goods remain completely safe, though no longer saleable.
Donations like that make up a huge portion of what goes out to the needy in this and other communities all over the U.S.
Canned-food drives also bring in a lot of items that are donated after residents “clean out” their pantries. Ashmore said the National Letter Carriers’ food drive in May, and the Big Sandy competition in the fall between Bridgeport and Decatur bring in tons of items – including outdated cans.
“We try very hard to make sure what we send out is quality,” she said. “Every now and then, something’s going to slip through.
“But we certainly don’t want to discourage food donations or people cleaning out their cabinets.”
Except for on infant formula, product dating is generally not required by federal law.
According to to the USDA web site:
- A “Sell-By” date tells the store how long to display the product for sale. You should buy the product before the date expires.
- A “Best if Used By (or Before)” date is recommended for best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.
- A “Use-By” date is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality. The date has been determined by the manufacturer of the product.
The can of peas had a “best by” date. According to Messenger staff, the peas tasted just fine.