Is it safe to buy dented food from grocery stores?

Red flags for canned food include bulging, leaking and rusting.
Red flags for canned food include bulging, leaking and rusting.

Food safety issues make headlines on a regular basis. As consumers, it's just as much our responsibility to rely on common sense when purchasing food as it is for packagers and distributors to ensure food safety at plants and factories. The general consensus is that it's safe to buy food from dented packaging. It does, however, depend on the condition the packaging is in and the food contained inside.

The most common form of foodborne illness from damaged food packaging is botulism. Botulism is considered a rare disease in the modern world since it's very preventable through safe food handling practices. Botulism, caused by the bacteria clostridium botulinum, occurs when a dent or damage to a can creates even a pinhole-size opening. The mixture of air and moisture from the food within the can spurs growth of the bacteria, and the food becomes contaminated. Low-acid foods such as green beans and mushrooms are the most susceptible to botulism growth. Foodborne botulism is actually very rare in the United States since potential cases of botulism are considered a public health emergency. Contamination from commercial canning usually results in voluntary recalls of food to protect the public.

Dented cans are the biggest culprit of botulism. Avoid buying cans with deep dents, especially ones that affect the top, bottom and side seams of the can. Bulging ends of the can means there is a leak in the can, and air has become trapped inside. A dirty label can also mean the can may have a leak, and excessive rust on the can that won't wipe off should not make its way into your grocery cart.

Here are some more tactics to keep in mind the next time you're strolling through the supermarket aisles:

  • Check the "sell by" or "use by" date on the packaging. Practically everything in the supermarket, from jarred dry spices and canned goods to pre-cut fresh fruit, has an expiration date on it. Larger grocery store chains rotate their food supplies often, and many offer deep discounts for foods about to reach their sell-by date. "Sell by" doesn't always mean "consume by," though. Many foods can still have a decent shelf life beyond the date on their package, and canned goods will last for years.
  • Make sure the package you pick off the shelf isn't crushed or damaged to the point that the food inside is exposed to air.
  • Look for any bloated or severely expanded cans or airtight packages. This is a strong indication of food spoilage, and you should avoid it.

On the next page, take a look at how some common non-canned foods are packaged and what to look for when making your selections.