Canned goods in bomb shelters

I recently made some tacos with canned refried black beans.

The beans tasted a little off so I spiced them up with onions, jalapenos, ghost peppers and hot sauce to make them palatable.

Curious, I glanced at the bottom of the can and it read “12SEPT10.” Whether that’s 9/12/10 or 9/10/12, I cannot say.

But does it matter?

Aren’t canned goods supposed to last forever?

Builders of fallout shelters thought so.

During the cold war of the ‘50’s and ‘60’s, when American children were taught by Bert the Turtle to “duck and cover” in the event of attack, bomb shelters were all the rage, stocked with canned goods, bottled water and flashlights.

Especially paranoid people built their shelters in the dead of night, or assured others it was a wine or fruit cellar, for fear that they would be overrun by panicked and unprepared neighbors when the bomb actually fell.

Even today, there is a strong underground economy pushing fallout shelters and their supplies.

One particular site promises, “Some canned foods last anywhere between 2-25 years (and sometimes more!).

This will be priceless for the duration of the apocalypse and recovery period. By the time some of your cans begin to expire, humanity will be on the rise again.

But just because food is past its expiration date doesn’t mean it’s unsafe to eat.

No federal law mandates expiration dates except for infant formula, though some state laws require it for meat and milk.

Generally, if the can is intact — and not bulging and pulsing like that scene in the movie Alien — its age is only going to affect taste and nutrient value.

So why have expiration dates at all?

John Ruff, president of the Institute of Food Technologists in Chicago, told NPR that it’s done “to protect the reputation of their products.”

“In 40 years, in eight countries, if I think of major product recalls and food poisoning outbreaks, I can't think of [one] that was driven by a shelf-life issue,” he said.

The NPR story goes on to describe experiments on old canned goods discovered on shelves or even recovered from a sunken ship a century ago. Except for lower levels of nutrients, the food seemed and tested normal (though apparently, nobody bothered to taste it).

Janet Dudek, one of the scientists who tested the old food, said “It would have been safe to eat if the can itself maintained its integrity.”

Well then. Go ahead and keep those cans.

If it passes your sniff and taste test, gladly serve it to your family and friends.

Keep some hot peppers on hand for borderline cases.

And if you’re looking into a fallout shelter? Don’t forget the can opener.


Nick Roumel is a principal with Nacht & Roumel, PC, a firm in Ann Arbor specializing in employment and civil right litigation. He also has many years of varied restaurant and catering experience, has taught Greek cooking classes, and wrote a food/restaurant column for “Current” magazine in Ann Arbor. Follow him at @nickroumel.