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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53 responses to “Canning 101: How To Get Rid of Canned Goods Gone Bad”

    • 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….

      • 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.

        • 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.

  1. 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.

    • 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.

    • 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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?

    • 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.

  4. 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.

    • 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.

    • 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.

    • 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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?

    • 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.

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

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

  12. 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.

    • 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.

    • 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.

  13. 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!

    • 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.

  14. To dispose of the contaminated stuff, I personally pour down the garbage disposal slowly with appropriate splash guards in place to catch any contamination that splashes out and then follow that with a little pure bleach in the sink to sterilize it. the glass jars get washed in soap and water (THAT sink also gets sterilized with bleach) and then placed on a sheet pan along with the washed rings and placed in a cold oven. turn the oven on to 350 degrees and leave them in the oven at that temp for 4 hours. turn the oven off and let cool naturally without opening the door. if any glass broke then it already had flaws. the high heat and extended time completely destroys anything that’s bad. if you used this method on your food then you would have charcoal, that’s how high temps we’re talking about.

    while you are doing the thermal sterilization of the jars and rings, throw away the seals and any remnants. completely wash and sterilize the kitchen. the jars should be covered with an up-side down seal and ring to keep any contamination out and stored ready for use. when you use them, all you need to do is re-sterilize them (mainly to warm up the glass) and re-use them (preferably with high acid foods).

  15. [Boiling the suspect canned goods would neutralize the toxins, but not the spores (remember, they need pressure-canner high heat to kill them). ]

    — clip —

    let’s stop right there. the boiling water temps will NOT destroy the toxins, just the bacteria that caused the toxins. the toxins are still there. that’s why your grandma always says “botulism is no joke”. that’s why the U.S. food and drug administration (FDA) says you should throw away the jars. I found out that after a certain treatment I put my jars through, the toxins are either diluted enough to not be of any problem or completely destroyed or denatured. Being from the military, I’m used to mild cases of food poisoning and they were right, food poisoning is no joke.

  16. 3rd year of brining olives from our home grown olives using publication 8267 from U of CA – Davis as guide http.//anrcatalog.ucdavis.edu
    this year ALL my olives were moldy within week of brining. LOTS of jars and 5 gallon plastic food grade pal. UGH> What they say is boil jars with food then dispose of then wash and bleach ….. insult to injury when it takes so much time and possibility of spreading the stuff around.

    I think I am going to double bag and donate all my hard work and expense to land fills!

  17. Rosa
    Regarding water bath, home canned nopales (cactus). I discovered several jars on my shelve I had canned in 2008 which I had no plans on eating. Before I read the instructions in “2011/10/canning-how-to-get-rid-of………, I emptied the jars and drained the nopales and was going to double bag and put them in the trash. After I read the article, I re-canned them and hard boiled the jars for 30 minutes and was in the process of “disposing the contents” per their instructions. I realized the instructions were unclear, bag the contents “in” the jars or, “in” the pot? Am I supposed to dispose of my ladles, spoons, aluminum and stainless steel pots as well per the article? I was totally confused and decided to call the Hazard Waste Specialist department in my city/county. I was told by someone there that it was safe to drain the liquid in my sink, double bag the cactus and place them in the trashcan. Place the jars in my recycle bin. The jars will be broken and melted along with other glass. The liquid will go to the recycling facility along with all other water in the drains and be treated. I realize there are several points in my mail, I hope they are all addressed. one more question, is cactus acid or alkaline? please advise asap my trash is picked up in three days.

  18. I put some raspberries/strawberries/blueberry in rum/liquor in a glass container with a ceramic spring lid. I did not sterilize anything before. It now has a white/blue mold. Could that be botulism? I want to dispose it correctly and don’t care about reusing the container. thank you!

    • It’s not botulism, as botulism isn’t visible, and doesn’t grow in high acid environments. It’s just mold. Throw it away the normal way.

  19. I bought a jar of something from a garage sale. Loved the jar….it’s an ancient Atlas EZ sear glass top jar from the early 1900’s. Unfortunately, there’s food in it. Or, what used to be food, anyhow. It’s completely liquified, with just leftover grit floating in the liquid (reddish brown.) No idea what it was. I want the jar, but have no idea how to open it and remove the contents safely. Any ideas?

  20. You people seem knowledgeable and as I have come across this site in looking for an answer (though I think marissa put my mind at rest somewhat saying peaches would just have “regular’ mold and clean up as you would that) … Though what “that” is, I don’t know for sure? Some bleach water, maybe?

    In the back of a food pantry we found a can of Del Monte peaches in their own fruit juice that had expired (2014) and this is 2018!! -I have been sick the past years so not diligent in checking and removing expired foods.

    I have 3 sons and a husband and things do not usually GET that far -or anywhere NEAR being expired. Think it was behind a few things and just didn’t get noticed …

    But it leaked out and down onto the next shelf. Green moldy where it leaked.

    Can I clean things/cans it touched? OR toss them? … Is this bad to breathe?

    As I have health issues, I don’t need anymore!

    Any help would be appreciated! And thanks in advance. ~Cathy

    I have looked and looked elsewhere and have not been able to find an answer, so if this doesn’t get seen and replied to, I am going to go by the comment Marissa left that peaches are not toxic mold, and definitely not a botulism worry, (and I assume not any of the “bad” molds, either).

    So will just wipe up with some clorox water. … And maybe wipe the cans off near it. ??? BUT, there is an opened (with lid on, though) plastic store canister of raisins right near it … Don’t Know if I should toss that to be safe,but they look okay ???

    • Because peaches are high in acid, it’s just mold. Now, as you have health issues, you might want to see if you can get your husband or sons would be willing to clean it up (because even regular old mold can be hard on bodies that are already compromised by other illnesses). But truly, it won’t take more than warm, soapy water. As long as the packages adjacent to the mold leakage are sealed, you should be able to clean them without issue. Anything that is unopened and nearby should be thrown out.

  21. A friend of mine makes balsamic vinegar eggs and I’ve eaten them numerous times and they are really tasty. I wanted to make these for myself so I asked if I could help her making her next batch. Of course that want an issue. I know NOTHING about canning/jarring whatever. Anyway, she took eggs from her chickens and hard boiled them, had a couple large washed NOT STERILIZED Mason jars and simply took balsamic vinegar and some large salt and spices and poured it into these jars and stuck them directly into her pantry. Is this a time bomb? I was going to do this as well and in looking up recipes for “black eggs” I read about the dangers of botulism with eggs etc., which brought me here. Has she and myself as well because I’ve been eating her eggs as well, been just getting lucky??
    Thanks in advance for your expertise and input –

    • It sounds like she’s using a lot of vinegar, which is a powerful preservative. And botulism cannot grow in highly acidic spaces. However, this method would make me very nervous. I’d refrigerate the eggs.

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