Canning 101: How To Get Rid of Canned Goods Gone Bad

tomato canning

When it comes to home canned foods, the rule of thumb is “When in doubt, throw it out.” This means that if you have any question as to the safety of your product, you shouldn’t eat it (seriously, not even a single taste). This includes products where the seals have gone bad, that have developed a seriously off-color (a little natural darkening is fine, significant color changes are not) and recipes where you forgot to add the necessary acid.

When you determine that it’s time to trash a batch of jars, there are a few things you should know. If it’s a low acid product (including tomatoes) it needs to be discarded in such a way that there’s no chance that either human nor animal will eat it. This means that it shouldn’t be poured into compost piles, put down the drain or even flushed. If you have a product (remember, only low acid foods can harbor botulism, so this would not be necessary for jams, pickles or fruit sauces) you suspect has been infected with botulism, here are the steps (as outlined by the Centers for Disease Control) you should follow:

  • Place jars into two layers of plastic, sealable bags and tape well to close.
  • Place bags in a trash can that is well out of reach of people and pets.
  • If the jars have been opened, make sure to wear rubber or latex gloves. Avoid any contact with the skin and make sure to wash hands well if contact was inadvertently made.
  • Cover any spills entirely with a bleach solution of 1/4 cup bleach per 2 cups of water. Place paper towels over bleach solution and allow it to sit for 15-20 minutes. Wipe up remaining bleach with fresh paper towels. Finally, clean the area with soap and water to remove bleach residue.
  • Any towels, rags, sponges, gloves, etc., that came into contact with the contaminates food should be bagged, sealed and tossed as well.

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39 Responses to Canning 101: How To Get Rid of Canned Goods Gone Bad

  1. 1
    Dawn says:

    Wow. Fortunately, I’ve never had to deal with this but the process makes me realize how seriously it needs to be taken. Thanks for the info!

  2. 2
    Sarah says:

    Wow. No composting? Won’t they just turn back into dirt in 6 months like regular food waste?

    • 2.1
      Jennifer W. says:

      I would think that the problem with composting food that may have been contaminated with botulism is that the botulism will continue to grow in the compost pile. Then if you put it on vegetable or fruit plants, it will contaminate them. Also, if an animal digs through the compost, they could become infected….

      • Leanne says:

        The composing process in a city run program will kill botulism because of the high levels of counteractive bacteria in the system as well as the high level of testing that is undertaken. However, I do not recommend doing it in your own back yard.

        • marisa says:

          Leanne, this isn’t a technique that I made up. It’s the one prescribed by the Centers for Disease Control. It’s only used for the most severely toxic items, but is the only way to go if you suspect botulism. I figure it’s worth sacrificing a few jars for the safety of your family.

  3. 3
    Susan Covey says:

    When I talk to people about canning, usually the phrase, “Botulism is no joke.” ends up in there somewhere. My neighbor is a speech pathologist. She told me about one of her patients who was re-learning to use his mouth for talking and swallowing. He and his girlfriend had eaten spoiled soup tainted with botulism. He took that small taste you warned against and ended up with serious paralysis in his mouth and throat. His girlfriend ate a bowl full and passed away. You should NEVER taste something to see if it is still good. The soup in question was not home canned food but soup they had left out on the stove over night.

    • 3.1
      Sarah says:

      Jesus! That makes me want to throw all my food away.

    • 3.2
      Kara E. says:

      Yikes. That makes me afraid to eat leftovers that have sat out cooling while we eat dinner.

    • 3.3
      Terri says:

      If they ate the soup the night before and didn’t get sick then it wasn’t from the soup or wasn’t botulism. It needs to be in an oxygen deficient environment to grow. Thats why it is such a big deal in canning, a vacuum is created where botulism thrives.

  4. 4
    Jennifer W. says:

    I guess my question do you have to throw away the glass jar itself? no possibility of sterilizing it?

    • 4.1
      Leanne says:

      Yes, you can sterilize it and reuse it. That is the beauty of glass. It is highly resilient to contamination.

    • 4.2
      abby says:

      As highly toxic as botulism is, I wouldn’t risk it. I’ll sacrifice a jar or two to avoid the possibility of cross contamination any day.

  5. 5
    Livia says:

    I had a scare a couple weeks ago with a commercial can of sauce that had started oozing brown goo. Apparently there is such a thing as over-reacting because I was worried about having sniffed the at the goo to try to figure out what was making another jar dirty before I realized it was coming from a can. After a call to the night on call physician, extensive googling failed to turn up any cases of botulism from inhalation.

    But, yeah, my mother had always taught me to be very afraid of suspect canned goods. You can buy/acquire more jars.

    But thanks for this post – it’s a good reminder.

  6. 6
    Bernalgirl says:

    If botulism is killed at high heat, I wonder why we aren’t directed to bring the contents to a boil and then discard? I suppose the risk of trace amounts remaining on utensils or counters and sinks is too great?

    • 6.1
      Susan Covey says:

      Check out the USDA website about this. Botulism has two forms – one is active and the other is like a spore. Boiling water will kill the active ones but the spores need a much higher temp. That is why you can use a BWB for high acid foods but need a pressure canner for low acid foods. The botulism spores can’t grow in the acid environment.

      • I read up about this, and the toxin is killed by heat, the spores are not killed at boiling temps, but at higher heat. So in theory boiling the contaminated food should render it harmless, but probably not worth the risk of getting some in your hangnail or whatever and dying.

  7. 7

    Oh my, thanks for saving my future self from pouring a jar of tainted tomato sauce down the drain!

  8. 8
    Leanne says:

    I am shocked that you would suggest such an environmentally irresponsible method for disposal:

    Place jars into two layers of plastic, sealable bags and tape well to close.
    Place bags in a trash can that is well out of reach of people and pets.

    Composing or flushing the content don the toiled and cleaning and reusing the jars will suffice. Please do not suggest that people throw away precious and an non nonrenewable resources in the garbage as a way of lazily avoiding germs.

    I have always enjoyed your posts, but I have to admit that I am very disappointed in this one.

    • 8.1
      Maryanne says:

      Leanne, did you really read the post or just skim it? Botulism is highly toxic bacteria even in VERY small amounts to any living thing. It won’t be killed by putting it in a compost pile or down the drain. If you happen to get a drop on yourself and then touch a surface like your counter you might not see the contamination but it will be there. Even wiping it with a rag would only spead it. What if you made your kids sandwiches there later and paralyzed them or killed them? What if you used that compost on your vegetable garden and then died because you ate a carrot? (it is a soil bacterium) It would kill any animal that got into your garbage (and then you risk infection cleaning it up).
      Think of it as the same thing as infectious biohazard waste (without an incinerator option). Would you just pour it down the sink or put it in your compost?
      Double bagging is not “unenvironmental” in this case. It’s a necessity.

    • 8.2
      Nina T says:

      I don’t think this is the “Word According to Marisa” on this. This is from the CDC. I don’t think we should be penny-wise and pound-foolish here.

    • 8.3
      abby says:

      I am shocked you apparently didn’t bother to read the post. These are not Marisa rules, these are CDC rules. Personally, I’d rather not mess with botulism.

  9. 9
    dan ewing says:

    Leanne, from where do you get the confidence to ignore safe food handling practices? Are you a scientist?
    Also, wouldn’t it be enough to think to yourself, ‘hm, that seems a bit much’ and do a little more research? ‘Shocked’ and ‘very disappointed’ seems a bit of an extreme reaction to a suggestion to follow safe food handling practices, established by actual scientists, designed to provide a safe and easy method of potential toxic waste disposal.

  10. 10
    Katie says:

    Sheesh, some people will pick anything apart just to make themselves feel better. I for one found this post very informative and helpful. As others have said, take it up with the CDC if you have a problem with it.

  11. 11
    Diane says:

    We take our household garbage directly to the transfer station where our local garbage collectors dump the neighbors’ trash. I have seen first hand how earth movers push the garbage and run over glass jars in the area where we walk to unload our garbage. This info makes me want to throw away my shoes and creates huge concerns for the safety of the people working in these stations. Hopefully they have been warned about their risks and proper decontamination methods. But how can we be assured that this method is killing the botulism and not transferring our risk to others in a different way than flushing?

    • 11.1
      M says:

      I also wonder about the station people, etc. The guidelines set up a high level of fear, and the method of disposal leaves a lot of questions. What if you’re in a high-rise and the jar cracks, rips through the plastic and pools in the building receptacle? Or in the garbage facility? Or it’s put in a landfill in a crushed, cracked state and then burrowing animals get at it? It seems as if their answer is a “best we can come up with under home circumstances” guideline rather than a necessarily safe guideline.

  12. 12
    ramona w says:

    how does wrapping in plastic and putting in a landfill “get rid” of anything except your ridiculous, CDC trusting conscience? I agree with Leanne.

  13. 13
    PDX canner says:

    In my opinion this is being a little over paranoid. On average there’s only ~21 cases of food borne Botulism in the USA each year. I’ll stick with dumping it in the garbage sans jar.

  14. 14
    Kath says:

    I am not trying to be argumentative but I am confused about the CDC recommendations. Aren’t there toxins in human waste, such as e.Coli? Couldn’t we just flush the suspected tainted food down the toilet? Again, not trying to argue – just scratching my head and thinking out loud.

  15. 15
    Michelle W. says:

    I posted a link to this article in a canning group on Facebook. It has really generated a lot of chatter among the members. I love all your blog posts, and I enjoy sharing some of them with the group. Thank you for your knowledge and experience, and thank you for sharing them with the rest of us.
    If you want to check out the canning group go to : https://www.facebook.com/groups/2261906796/10150373207481797/

  16. 16
    jj says:

    Okay, so my understanding is that botulism is endemic, meaning, it is everywhere, or potentially everywhere, particularly in dirt, like the dirt I scrubbed off the raw garden carrots I ate earlier, but it also occurs with some regularity in honey. However, if I understand correctly, it is also relatively uncommon.

    Botulism spores themselves don’t kill people – it is when they ‘hatch’ and start excreting toxins that folks have to be worried. In a normal adult’s stomach, there is so much acidity that the spores can’t ‘hatch’, and so folks aren’t harmed. However, young children’s digestive systems are not very acidic, and botulism spores CAN ‘hatch’ in their stomachs and intestines, and give them botulism poisoning from the inside. That is why we are warned not to feed honey to small children.

    This is also why high-acid foods can be safely canned in a water bath canner. Low-acid foods, which could allow the spores to ‘hatch’ and start excreting the toxins, are the dangerous ones, and therefore need to be canned at temperatures high enough to kill the spores – requiring a pressure canner.

    Now, personally, I would not want to introduce any (more) botulism spores into my garden via the compost pile, especially if I might be feeding the produce to young children. As well, I would not want to toss a jar’s worth of botulism toxin in a place where one of the dogs could dig it up and eat it (because dogs are like that – the slimier and more disgusting, the more likely they are to snarf it…). I also would not want to just dump it in the trash, knowing that a worker might have a bag rip open, and have that jar drop, shatter, and potentially splash the toxins on him or her – likely the reason behind the CDC recommendation of triple-bagging.

    Boiling the suspect canned goods would neutralize the toxins, but not the spores (remember, they need pressure-canner high heat to kill them). As environmentally unsound as it is, I would rather those spores went in a known (toxic) dump than into my (child-feeding) garden. If the landfill was absolutely not an option, I would bury the offending container whole, as far from the house and garden as I could, and very deep.

    Of course, you will have to make your own choices, and really, it is unlikely that you will even ever encounter botulism if you are following the rules of safe canning, but it is worth considering what danger the spores might present in the future, should you decide to compost your spoiled canned goods.

  17. 17
    Steph says:

    I canned some apple pie filling using Clear gel this Fall and the fruit has floated up to the top. When I opened the jar the fruit on top looks quite dry. Is this safe to eat? I am concerned that the fruit (hot packed) in not immersed in the syrup.

    • 17.1
      marisa says:

      Steph, apples are high enough in acid that as long as the fruit doesn’t appear to be growing mold or fermenting, it’s probably safe. However, it sounds like your product has experienced a loss in quality. It won’t harm, but may not be as good as you were hoping for. Whether you eat it or not is entirely up to you.

    • 17.2
      Marlene says:

      I realize that the post is a year old, but for others with similar questions, the pie filling would be perfectly safe. This often happens and is no indication of a problem, just that the apples were probably not heated enough to remove the air from the pores of the apples before they were put into the jars, which causes them to float. As long as the jars are still properly sealed and there is no sign of spoilage, enjoy your fruit!

      If you notice your fruit floating after the jars have all cooled and sealed, you can try gently shaking them up to remix the contents.

  18. 18

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  19. 19
    paws says:

    So, my understanding is that botulism is only a problem with low-acid foods. Correct?

    What’s the worst-case scenario for home canned peaches and pears that have either been contaminated or weren’t processed correctly? Will it be obvious because of the way they smell or look when I open them they’re bad?

    This is my first season canning, and I’m feeling a bit paranoid!

    • 19.1
      Marisa says:

      As long as they’re yellow peaches, the worst thing that can happen is that they’ll become moldy or start to ferment. You will know immediately upon opening the jars if something is wrong.

  20. 20

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