Are Rusty Cans Safe to Eat From?

By Carolyn Shearlock, copyright 2011 . All rights reserved.

Ever reach for a can and notice a bit of rust on it?  Most likely, on the rim? It’s happened to us several times, generally with something that sat around a bit longer than I expected it to (okay, a couple of years longer), that got “lost” in the bottom of a locker or that fell into an inaccessible place and I didn’t find for a while.

Hmm, is it safe to eat?

This article was triggered by an e-mail from Margaret McGovern yesterday.  She and her husband Phil are commuter cruisers.  They just returned to their boat after 6 months in the US and discovered a bunch of cans with rust around the rims.  Margaret wondered if they were okay to use or if she had to throw them all away.

Margaret and Phil, her husband of 42 years, cruise aboard Sunshine, a 36′ PDQ catamaran, currently in the Rio Dulce, Guatemala.  They’re definitely proof that you don’t have to be life-long sailors to cruise successfully:  neither one of them had sailed before they bought the boat 5 years ago!  Read about their adventures and learning curve in her blog, S/V Sunshine (she’s in the process of moving it from a different location, so be patient if it’s not all there yet — thanks to Margaret for the photos, too).

Margaret and Phil

The good news for Margaret:  those cans are probably fine to use.

According to the FDA:  “Discard heavily rusted cans. Cans that are heavily rusted can have tiny holes in them, allowing bacteria to enter. Surface rust that you can remove by rubbing with your finger or a paper towel is not serious. You can keep these canned foods. If you open the cans and there is any rust inside, do not eat the food. Rust (oxidized iron) is not safe to eat.”

The Canned Food Alliance (a trade group for manufacturers of canned goods) says: “Rust or dents do not affect the contents of the can as long as the can does not leak. If the can is leaking, however, or if the ends are bulged, the food should not be used.”

I’d add that you should probably wipe away as much rust as possible from the lid, so that when you use cut the lid off, loose “rust dust” doesn’t fall into the can (I don’t have any source for that, just my own comment).

As with anything else when you’re away from prompt medical care, use common sense and don’t push it too far.  If you have any suspicion that a can is unsafe (rusted or dented so that bacteria could enter), don’t eat the food in it.  Food poisoning is never fun, but it can be extremely serious when medical care is a day or more away.

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Comments

  1. Candy Ann Williams on Facebook says:

    My husband and I always argue about that!! LOL

  2. I hope you were right!

  3. Carolyn,
    I used all those cans and there were no ill effects. Thanks for researching that for us.

    Margaret
    s/v Sunshine

  4. Timely article.

  5. Donating our safe can and boxed goods to those in our area devastated by Sandy. We are in Freeport Long Island. Our marina took a big hit, but our Gulfstar trawler weathered the storm and kept us safe. On to the cleanup.

  6. Donna — so sorry to hear about the marina but very glad you’re safe. We’re too far away to give “things” but donated $$ to the Red Cross. I feel for you with the cleanup — we’ve helped with several after Marty and after chubascos hit, and it’s a big job.

  7. Billy Forde says:

    Lets be realistic. Canned food is very cheap. Hospitals are not. Any signs of rust means the airtightness of the container could be breached allowing bacteria to develop. Dont risk it – Dump it

  8. Hi hope you don’t mind if I add something I learned from my brother, who worked in a grocery store.

    He told me that the way canned goods are handled, it is inevitable that some cans will be exposed to things like rat and cockroach urine. He said for this reason, one should always wash off the outside of any can before opening it. (Same for canned beverages!)

    When I thought about it, I wondered why that had never occurred to me before. Considering that when people are boating, they might be picking up groceries from places with even more such risks, I think it’s a good idea (and you should wash your hands after handling cans too).

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