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. 

Recently I had a call from a consumer who was cleaning out the home of a family member who had passed away. In the basement of the home, the family found jar after jar of home preserved fruits and vegetables. The homeowner was in her late eighties and had not canned foods for years. Unfortunately, none of the jars were labeled or dated and to add to the situation, some of the jars had broken and spilled and others were oozing black liquid. Due to the concern of botulinum toxin, a bacterium associated with home canned foods, they called looking for recommendations on how to clean up the mess and how to dispose of the spoiled, unsafe home canned foods. 

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.
  • 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, 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.

Detoxification process: Wear disposable rubber or heavy plastic gloves. Carefully place the suspected containers and lids on their sides in an 8-quart volume or larger stock pot, pan or boiling-water canner. Wash your hands with gloves thoroughly. Carefully add water to the pot and avoid splashing the water. The water should completely cover the containers with a minimum of a 1-inch level above the containers. Place a lid on the pot and heat the water to boiling. Boil 30 minutes to ensure detoxifying the food and all container components. Cool and discard the containers, their lids and food in the trash or dispose in a nearby landfill.

Cleaning up the area: Contact with botulinum toxin can be fatal whether it is ingested or enters through the skin. Take care to avoid contact with suspected foods or liquids. Wear rubber or heavy plastic gloves when handling suspected foods or cleaning up contaminated work surfaces and equipment. A fresh solution of one part unscented liquid household chlorine bleach (five to six percent sodium hypochlorite) to five parts clean water should be used to treat work surfaces, equipment or other items, including can openers and clothing, that may have come in contact with suspected foods or liquids. Spray or wet contaminated surfaces with the bleach solution and let stand for 30 minutes. Wearing gloves, wipe up treated spills with paper towels being careful to minimize the spread of contamination. Dispose of these paper towels by placing them in a plastic bag before putting them in the trash. Next, apply the bleach solution to all surfaces and equipment again, and let stand for 30 minutes and rinse. As a last step, thoroughly wash all detoxified counters, containers, equipment, clothing, etc. Discard gloves when cleaning process is complete. Note: Bleach is an irritant itself and should not be inhaled or allowed to come in contact with the skin.

Michigan State University Extension recommends labeling and dating every item that you preserve at home as well as only preserving enough food to last you and your family for one year. 

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