All About Shelf Stable Foods and Food Safety: Including Emergency Food Storage

A topic I touch on every now-and-then but don't harp on is emergency preparedness.  No matter where you live there are going to be some sort of natural disasters that affect your everyday lifestyle in some way. 

Roads flood, wind damages, hail breaks, tornadoes destroy, hurricanes decimate...  whether it's fire, flood, storms, wind, or even economic downturns, a loss of a job or health issues I absolutely believe in being at least a little prepared.  I know people have come to rely on the government to take care of them after a large natural disaster - but honestly you might not realize it's not their job and they don't have to.  Even so, even the government recommends you have at least 3 days of food, water and medications for everyone in your family - and don't forget your pets.

Having said that - I'll let you know why I'm post a little post about 'Shelf Stable Foods' today...  storms.  Lots of storms! We've had a very stormy spring this year and not just 'storms' as many people know them, but severe storms.  100 mph winds, hail, trees down, power lines down, flooding.  We get them quite often where I live so we are 'used to' them in that way; but friends and family in other parts of the country are also being hit hard this year and even those who live in areas that almost never see strong storms are getting them. 

 We actually have a 5 foot hole in our roof at this very minute 
from a storm that passed through last week. 
A tree fell on the house.

We actually have a 5 foot hole in our roof at this very minute from a storm that passed through last week. A tree fell on the house.  6 punctures of all sizes, 3 emergency tarps in place and an insurance adjuster coming tomorrow.  In April we had a strong storm that effected over 80,000 homes with wind and hail damage in this area.  The roofing companies are still so backed up that new calls are expecting work to start in September.  While we didn't have damage to our own home during that particular storm, we did lose power for 12+ hours and my husband couldn't get home due to all the trees and power lines down.  Every road - even back roads - were blocked by the police.  I was home with two itty-bitties (ages 2 years and 11 months) but you know what?

No problem here.  I can live and cook and have lighting without power for as long as we need.  I have various ways of cooking without power (a solar oven, butane and propane camp stove, a propane grill, a fire pit and lots of wood on hand...).  We have canned, shelf stable foods in our pantry (including milk for the littles) as well as variations of dehydrated foods, freeze dried foods and more.  The only thing I don't have it a silent generator to run our refrigerator or freezer - but I know to keep them stocked, have extra containers of water frozen (like an empty milk jug) to keep it cold and not to open the refrigerator or freezers while the power is out.  We sailed through a 12 hour power outage without any issues or concerns at all and the 2 year old didn't even notice anything different about our evening of dinner, reading a book (by lantern light) and even got to play a toddler game on his tablet.  Bedtime was smooth and when the power came back on around 6:30 am, he had no idea it had even been off.

This is a topic I'm so interested in that I get a little 'wordy' so I'm going to stop chatting and start posting the point of this post - SHELF STABLE FOODS AND THEIR SAFETY.   This information is readily available through the federal government food safety sites but I'm putting a bit of it here for an easy to understand and quick overview. 

In the event of a loss of job, natural or man-made disasters, etc. please at least have 3 days worth of food, water and medications ready for your loved ones.

Shelf-Stable Food Safety

What does "shelf stable" mean?
Foods that can be safely stored at room temperature, or "on the shelf," are called "shelf stable." These non-perishable products include jerky, country hams, canned and bottled foods, rice, pasta, flour, sugar, spices, oils, and foods processed in aseptic or retort packages and other products that do not require refrigeration until after opening. Not all canned goods are shelf stable. Some canned food, such as some canned ham and seafood, are not safe at room temperature. These will be labeled "Keep Refrigerated."

How are foods made shelf stable?
In order to be shelf stable, perishable food must be treated by heat and/or dried to destroy foodborne microorganisms that can cause illness or spoil food. Food can be packaged in sterile, airtight containers. All foods eventually spoil if not preserved.

Will commercially canned foods last forever?
Commercial canning is done under tightly controlled conditions — careful sanitation and the necessary time and temperature under pressure, but there are still limits to how long it will preserve food. There are several factors that limit the shelf life of canned foods. First, cans can rust over time. Shipping accidents, where cans fall and dent or are crushed, also cause container problems.
Then there's can corrosion. In all foods, but especially in high-acid foods like canned tomatoes, natural chemicals in the food continually react with the container. Over several years, this can cause taste and texture changes, and eventually lower the nutritional value of the food.
High temperatures (over 100 °F) are harmful to canned goods too. The risk of spoilage jumps sharply as storage temperatures rise. In fact, canned goods designed for use in the tropics are specially manufactured.
Store canned foods and other shelf stable products in a cool, dry place. Never put them above or beside the stove, under the sink, in a damp garage or basement, or any place exposed to high or low temperature extremes. Temperatures below 85 °F are best. Check your pantry every few weeks and use canned goods you have had on hand for awhile. Don't purchase bulging, rusted, leaking, or deeply dented cans.

Is the dating of shelf-stable foods required by federal law?
Except for infant formula and some baby food, product dating — having a "use-by," "sell-by," or "best-if-used-by" date — is not required by Federal regulations. Dating is for quality, not safety. However, if a calendar date is used, it must express both the month and day of the month (and the year, in the case of shelf-stable and frozen products). If a calendar date is shown, immediately adjacent to the date must be a phrase explaining the meaning of that date, such as "sell by" or "use before." While there is no uniform or universally accepted system used for food dating in the United States, dating of some foods is required by more than 20 states. A shelf-stable product can be safely used after the "sell-by" date. Products displaying a "use-by" date, although still safe, may not be of acceptable quality after the "use-by" date.

Is it safe to use cans that freeze accidentally?
Cans of food that freeze accidentally, such as those left in a car or basement in sub-zero temperatures, can present health problems. Frozen cans could swell because the food inside expanded when frozen. However, cans can be swollen because of contamination with Clostridium botulinum or spoilage-causing organisms. Do not use any swollen cans; discard them.
Also, discard frozen cans that are not swollen but have been allowed to thaw at 40 °F or higher. Cans that have thawed and refrozen are not safe.
A frozen can that has not thawed can be safely defrosted in the refrigerator and used. If the canned food is still frozen, let the intact can thaw in the refrigerator before opening. If the product doesn't look and/or smell normal, throw it out. Do not taste it!
If the product does look and/or smell normal, thoroughly cook the contents right away by boiling for 10 to 20 minutes. At altitudes below 1,000 feet, boil foods for 10 minutes. Add an additional minute of boiling time for each additional 1,000 feet elevation (for example, at 3,000 feet, boil for 12 minutes). Spinach and corn should be boiled for 20 minutes at all altitudes. This is due to the high density of these vegetables. Products can then be refrigerated or frozen for later use.

What are dried foods?
Drying is the world's oldest and most common method of food preservation. Drying technology is both simple and readily available to most of the world's culture. Examples of dried foods are jerky, powdered milk, dried beans and peas, potatoes in a box, dried fruits and vegetables, pasta, and rice. Canning technology is just over 200 years old, and freezing became practical only during this century as electricity became increasingly available.

Does freeze-drying make food shelf stable?
Yes, freeze-dried foods are shelf stable. Freeze-drying is a commercial process that can be used to preserve such food as dried soup mixes, instant coffee, fruits, and vegetables. To freeze dry, frozen food is placed in a special vacuum cabinet. There, ice changes from a solid state directly to a vapor state without first becoming a liquid. This process, whereby water escapes from the food, is called "sublimation." To use freeze-dried foods, they must be rehydrated with water. They retain their original flavor, texture, and nutrients, but must be packaged in moisture-proof, hermetically sealed containers.

What is an MRE?
MRE stands for "Meal, Ready-to-Eat." MRE's were originally designed for the U.S. government and have been used since the 1970's in the U.S. space program, U.S. military, and USDA's Forest Service. The MRE package is officially known as a tri-laminate retort pouch. It contains normal food that is ready to heat and consume, such as chili or beef stew.

Is an MRE shelf stable?
Yes. MRE's are shelf stable because they have been commercially sterilized by heat in a sealed container to destroy bacteria that can make it unsafe or spoil the food. Like food in metal cans, MRE's can be kept for a long time, but not indefinitely. The shelf life is highly related to the storage temperature. For example, if stored at 120 °F (a temperature that could be encountered on desert battlefields), the MRE should be used within a month. Stored at 60 °F, an MRE can last 7 years or more.

If you enjoy visiting An American Housewife, please consider using this affiliate link if you are planning to shop for anything (seriously, anything!) at Amazon. - American Housewife at Amazon

You might also be interested in product related to this post available through Amazon;
Harmony House Foods Dried Vegetable Sampler (15 Count, ZIP Pouches) for Cooking, Camping, Emergency Supply, and More
Mountain House Just In Case...Classic Assortment Bucket
MRE (Meals Ready-to-Eat) Genuine US Military Surplus w/ Menu Selections, 13 Cheese Tortellini
ULTIMATE MRE, Pack Date Printed on Every Meal - Meal-Ready-To-Eat. Inspected by Western Frontier. Genuine Mil Surplus.

Print Friendly and PDF