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.

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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.

Food Packaging and Selection

Each aisle in the supermarket contains different foods packaged in different ways. Certain foods should always be avoided if its container is damaged or compromised. Here's a general look at food and its respective packaging:

  • Meat is usually packaged in Styrofoam and plastic. You should be able to see the meat clearly, and it should be stored at the proper refrigerated temperature (below 40 degrees Fahrenheit). Generally speaking, the redder in color, the fresher the meat is. While some consumers might believe discolored beef is spoiled, beef will naturally turn a grayish-brown shade when it comes into contact with oxygen, and many meat-packing companies actually inject carbon monoxide into the package to keep the product looking fresh longer. The way to check whether meat is spoiled is to make sure the package isn't bulging, it doesn't give off a bad smell and it isn't slimy when handled.
  • Packaging for dairy products varies, but you can easily tell if your milk, yogurt, butter, sour cream or other dairy should be avoided. Make sure plastic containers aren't damaged in any way, such as with a split plastic cup, broken seal or ripped bag. If a container has a plastic or foil seal under the lid (many brands of yogurt, cottage cheese and sour cream do), you should be able to open the lid and see whether the seal is intact. If not, the food is compromised and should not be bought or eaten. Many milk containers now have a plastic cap with another seal you have to remove. A seal that's securely intact is a good sign the milk is safe to drink.
  • Grains, pastas and cereals are often double-packaged. If the outside box is crushed or torn, it doesn't necessarily mean the food inside is compromised. If the packet or bag inside the box is still sealed, the food is safe.

One phenomenon that has become more widespread is the rise of "scratch-and-dent" or salvage grocery stores. These stores have popped up around the country as a way both to ease the pain of high food costs and for supermarkets to clear their shelves of food that didn't sell well or that looks less than perfect. Salvage grocery stores have become popular because they offer deep discounts on food, produce and toiletries.

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If you buy damaged food from a traditional grocery store and you have your original receipt, you should be able to return or exchange it if you discover it's spoiled after getting it home from the store. If you buy from a salvage grocery store, however, returns aren't allowed, so choose your food wisely.

Remember, with any food, if you doubt its safety, throw it out. It's better to be safe than sorry.

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Sources

  • Canned Food Safety Guide. (Oct. 5, 2011) www.cannedfood.org/files/library/pdfs/Quality-can.pdf
  • Dairy For All. "Packaging Containers (Forms) for Milk and Dairy Products." (Oct. 12, 2011) http://www.dairyforall.com/package-forms.php
  • Freedman, Donna. "Save with scratch-and-dent food." MSN Money. Oct. 5, 2010. (Oct. 11, 2011) http://articles.moneycentral.msn.com/SavingandDebt/FindDealsOnline/cheapest-food-this-side-of-a-dumpster.aspx?
  • Milloy, Steven. "No Beef in Meat Packaging Controversy." Fox News. March 6, 2006. (Oct. 12, 2011) http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,187009,00.html
  • Sandell, Clayton and Andrea Beaumont. "Big Savings and Salvage Grocery Stores." ABC News. Aug. 28, 2009. (Oct. 5, 2011) http://abcnews.go.com/GMA/MensHealth/story?id=8398640
  • U.S. Department of Agriculture. "Refrigeration and Food Safety." May 11, 2011. (Oct. 20, 2011) http://www.fsis.usda.gov/factsheets/refrigeration_&_food_safety/index.asp
  • U. S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). "Generators of Food Waste." (Oct. 14, 2011) http://www.epa.gov/osw/conserve/materials/organics/food/fd-gener.htm