A Food Storage Mishap that may Require a Haz Mat Suit

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Several months ago, my friend Em (name has been changed to protect the not so innocent) and I recently got to talking about stocking up on food and she told me she was pretty confident she had enough food stored up.   Em has one of those large walk-in pantries that can be filled from floor to ceiling, something alien to us apartment preppers.  She is quite preparedness-minded herself; she’d been carrying around a full suitcase of backup clothes for the kids in the trunk of her car long before I even thought about emergency prepping.  When she told me she wasn’t worried about food storage as she had more than enough, I could tell she did not want to get into too much detail so we left it at that.

Fast forward to the present, we got together and I asked Em how her day went.  She said she had a rough day, as she and her husband had to clean up every inch of her entire pantry.  I was intrigued, “What happened?”  She said, “A couple of the cans high in the pantry shelf exploded and nasty, disgusting stuff flew all over the place.  It smelled pretty rotten in there.”

She and her DH had to don a pair of gloves, some masks and some old clothes (practically a haz mat suit).  They emptied the entire pantry, and swabbed it down with bleach solution.  Turns out they had cans of food from 2002 that they had forgotten about.  The cans got so old that they exploded, which means botulism toxins could have gotten all over the place.  Well Botox may be something some people may want in their face, but botulism bacteria (or Clostridium botulinum) is quite dangerous around food.

Facts about botulism bacteria

  • Thrives in  low salt, low acid, high humidity environment, when food is stored without refrigeration
  • Can grow in canned foods that are damaged, warped or very old
  • Can enter the body through open wounds
  • Symptoms generally appear between 18-36 hours of eating a contaminated food, or possibly as early as six hours and up to 10 days of eating a contaminated food.
  • Symptoms include difficulty breathing, double vision, difficulty swallowing, stomach cramps, nausea, vomiting, weakness leading to paralysis
  • Infants can catch it from eating honey or corn syrup as their digestive tracts are not fully developed to handle these foods.
  • Treatment is the administration of a botulism anti toxin, as soon as possible to avoid complications
  • If you suspect botulism, immediately call 911 or go to the emergency room


  • Throw away bulging, dented and old canned foods
  • If you can foods at home, do not take shortcuts.   Making even small mistakes can lead to a hospital visit for botulism or worse.
  • If the canned or preserved food smells “off,” get rid of it
  • Never give babies under one year old honey or corn syrup, not even to taste

Back to my friend Em’s story.   They threw out everything in that pantry.   As they went through the cans, they wondered why they had stored stuff that no one in their family eats.  Some cans were already getting puffy, but even the newer cans got thrown out.  If any of the toxic liquid got even close, they went ahead and threw them out in double bagged construction bags.  It wasn’t worth the risk of botulism.

Em is actually glad she realized their mistakes before an actual emergency.   Had an emergency happened, they would have had nothing to eat.   They realized their food storage was so out of date they needed to restock as soon as possible.  They immediately went ahead and carefully shopped for foods they would normally eat, as well as basic ingredients such as rice, beans, pasta, sugar, oatmeal and other bulk foods that they can self seal in food grade buckets for long term food storage.  This time Em is making sure they rotate their stocks.  I told her I could not pass up the retelling of this story I’d have to blog about it.  She figured if it helps someone else, then she doesn’t mind at all.


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  1. That is quite a story. You know, Bernie, there is a lot of dissing around the net about the boring proliferation of blog articles addressing food storage. But think about it: no food = starvation. This is an important topic that needs to have face time every day of the week in my opinion.

    I do have one thing to throw out for consideration and that is that in addition to storing food you will actually eat and food rotation, try to find a storage area where the shelving is not so high, so deep, or so obscure that you will forget about it. It is for that reason that I store canned goods in big bins with date on the outside of the bin. That way I can move the food in the bin to “active” use on an annual basis. That said, I did find one bulging can a month or so ago. It went in to the trash, of course. I was lucky and did not have an explosion.

    Thank you so much for sharing Em’s story.


    1. Hi Gaye, That is a shame people are dissing about “boring” food storage, instead of paying attention and preparing themselves. I labeled my buckets by date when they were assembled, which gives me a rough idea when I should start using them. I like your idea about putting bins in “active” use. No matter how matter how much I try to avoid waste inadvertently something falls through the cracks and gets thrown out.

  2. When I worked in the hospital in Missouri, we treated a man who was seriously injured in a food truck explosion; it was carrying thousands of cans of tomato paste. After months of investigating the explosion, the BATF determined the source was tomato sauce that had fermented and built up methane. In the summer heat, a chain of can explosions was triggered.

    I would not have ever believed it before that. Not too many years ago we had something similar happen in our garage. My wife had placed several cans of tomato juice on top of the upright freezer. Over time it built up pressure and had a nice little spontaneous explosion. It took months to get the smell out.

    Our deep storage is all dehydrated and/or freeze dried. That includes the tomato powder. No canned goods at all.

    1. Hey Zoomer, Wow, who’ve thought tomato sauce cans can build up methane. I don’t have any tomato powder at all, I will need to remedy that! Thanks for the idea.

    1. Hey Dave, I think one of the factors here in Texas is the humidity is not conducive to long term food storage. Even with the AC humidity can still seep in, which shortens the shelf life of stored food.

  3. Sounds like that was one nasty undertaking, I’m glad it wasn’t me doing the cleaning. Living in an apt makes it difficult to really store any large quantities of food so me and my wife always just try to have some extra rice, beans, pasta, and oatmeal on hand in case of any emergencies.

    1. Todd, We’re the same as you, our apartment only has a small pantry. Some of our stored items are in other places such as under the bed or under the dining table. Small spaces force us to be creative.

      1. We have 4 kids between us from previous marriages. Our daughter who is 2 would have a field day if we tried to store items under the beds. Sometimes I get really worried thinking about what would happen to our family if some kind of catastrophe ever did happen. I think our best bet would be to head an hour north to a family members house and hope for the best.

    1. Hi Susan, the same thing applies to home canned foods- do not eat home canned food if the container has a bulging lid or leakage, the color looks odd, or has foaminess, if you are unsure of the method used when it was canned, or develops a bad smell. I would say if you have some doubts, best to not eat it.

  4. Wow! That is nuts! I don’t store much canned food b/c of the lower nutritional content (mostly freeze dried here), but didn’t realize the cans could EXPLODE! I do have a few cans and I will most certainly be checking them! Thanks Bernie!

    1. Hey Misty, Yes, cans do explode now and then, I’ve had a defective cat food can (back during the melamine in cat food debacle) explode in the trunk of my car a few years ago, the stench was unbelievable. I think they more likely would do it if damaged, overheated or very old. Thanks for the comment!

  5. In addition to danger of exploding, old canned food loses its nutrition and tastes “off”. The BPA in the can liner also has more time to leach out. That’s not healthy either.

    Get rid of anything that’s much over 2 years old. When you buy canned goods, or can food, write the month/year on the top of the can with a sharpie. If you use non-reusable canning lids, you can then tell a used one from an unused one because a used one will have a year written on it. You can reuse used canning lids or even commercial jam or tomato sauce jars if you are just sticking dried herbs or other dried things in a jar and sticking a lid on. You can even try reusing a used canning lid to can wet stuff, but then you really have to pay attention to the vacuum dent popping up, because a certain percent of them will fail. Or you can use a used one if you are going to put the jar in the fridge. (like for fridge pickles that you plan to eat pretty quick).

    Non-canning jars, the commercial kind, are thinner, and are designed for use with their machinery. Don’t re-use these to can.

    Do not put a glass jar full of liquid in the freezer. It breaks the jar. (I tried once).

    1. Hi Penny Pincher, These are some good tips, you must be pretty experienced with canning. Thanks for sharing these tips!

  6. Although I don’t know the science, I wonder how toxic the botulism bacteria is after being exposed to the open (and therefore aeriobic) air, since it’s the anaerobic environment that such bacteria thrive in. Regardless, I’m pretty sure I would have done the same thing your friend did.

    1. Hey millenniumfly, Not sure how long the bacteria would thrive, but I think the smell alone was enough to cause them to promptly do a major cleanup.

    2. Its not the live bacteria that is the problem. Its the toxins that are released when your body breaks down the bacteria’s (live or dead) cell wall. Thats why you can still die from botulism even if the food was cooked.

  7. Great article, just enough to make me think I need to look in the back corners of the cupboard to make sure I’m not missing any old cans that need to be tossed.

    I live in alaska which has the countries highest rate of food borne botulism. My little hospital actually has the anti-toxin. This is because of some of the traditional native food preparation techniques include fermentation. Then when they use say a ziplock or plastic bag instead of grass to wrap the meat prior to burying it, or what ever they choose to do, they create and environment for botulism.

    1. Hey countrygirl, I did not realize Alaska has a high rate of botulism! Good thing that antitoxin is readily available.

  8. I suspect that there was something wrong with the cans to start with. Botulism cannot develop inside the can unless it was present when manufactured. Cans inexcess of 50 years old have been opened and tested with no hazard’s found. Nutritional content, appearance and taste is no doubt effected. Canning is a wonderful thing. Ever leave cooked chicken in the fridge for a little too long? Fuzzy stuff start to grow? Amazing how a canned ham or chicken can last for years.

    Great info – keep it up.


  9. Our apartment has little storage room in the kitchen. We use a set of normal non-kitchen shelves in the coat closet (it’s off the living room) for our food storage and rotate goods into the kitchen storage.
    We also utilize two of the “pantry plus” cansolidator units from shelfreliance.com in the closet to organize and automatically rotate our canned goods. I can’t say enough good things about those racks. They fit great stacked 2 high on the shelving unit, though we did have to put a sheet of cardboard down so it had a stable base to rest on rather than the slats on the shelves.

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