To protect yourself when cleaning out spoiled canned goods, always wear gloves, protective covers and use a mask. Credit: Julia Bayly / BDN

There comes a point in most post-apocalyptic or zombie movies in which the heroes stumble upon a cache of years-old canned food and dig right in. In reality, those canned goods are far more dangerous than the zombies or whatever other threats exist in their dystopian world. That’s why it is important to keep track of your pantry items to avoid getting sick from foodborne illnesses.

The biggest danger from spoiled canned food is botulism, according to food safety experts. Improperly prepared or stored home canning can create the right conditions for botulism spores to grow and produce a dangerous toxin.  

Foodborne botulism is rare, but should be taken seriously, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s because you can’t see, smell or taste the toxin, but even a small amount of food containing it can make you quite ill or can be fatal.

“It is the recommendation from the [United States Department of Agriculture] that all home-canned goods be used within one year,” said Kathy Savoie, food safety professor with University of Maine Cooperative Extension. “Beyond that, it should be disposed of.”

If the canned goods in your pantry or root cellar are beyond a year old, or show obvious signs of broken seals or leaking food, Savoie said great care should be taken in disposing of them.

“There are specific recommendations on how to clean up home-canned goods,” she said. “Since botulism is incredibly deadly, it is something you want to avoid.”

The National Center for Home Food Preservation has guidelines for disposing of spoiled canned goods and stresses that all suspect containers should be handled carefully in one of two ways, even if there is no visible or odor evidence of botulinum toxin.

Swollen cans or suspect sealed jars with intact lids should be placed in a heavy garbage bag that is then closed up and placed in with your regular trash or taken to a landfill.

Any cans or jars that are leaking, unsealed or open should be treated with a detoxification process before being thrown out. The National Center for Home Food Preservation recommends placing the suspect containers on their sides in a large pot and carefully adding water until the containers are covered at least an inch. Cover the pot and and heat the water to boiling and then continue boiling for 30 minutes. Then cool and discard the containers, lids and contents in the trash or a landfill.

Always use disposable rubber or heavy plastic gloves when dealing with suspect cans or glass containers because botulinum toxin can enter through any openings in the skin. Wearing a facemask or respirator is also a good idea to avoid breathing in mold or mildew spores.

Once you have disposed of the old canned goods, you can clean the area with a solution of one part liquid household bleach to five parts water. Wipe or spray the bleach on the area and let it sit for 30 minutes before wiping the area down with paper towels. Dispose of those towels in a plastic bag before placing them in the trash. Finally, wash your clothes you wore during this process using bleach.

To avoid this problem, Savoie recommends not storing more than a year’s worth of food items at any one time. She also suggests keeping an inventory list next to your pantry or root cellar and updating it every time you add or remove something. She said it’s a good strategy for keeping track of what is in your freezer as well.

“There is a time factor when it comes to using canned or home-canned foods,” Savoie said. “Canned goods are considered ‘shelf stable’ but it does not mean eternal, despite what the zombie movies say.”

Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.