When the Damage is Already Done

Canned foods represent one of the safest, most shelf-stable options for storage and transport in the food distribution industry. Yet, damaged canned goods may pose a serious safety risk to consumers. That is why the Sysco QA team actively educates employees and customers alike on the safety concerns associated with damaged canned goods.

Food cans are hermetically sealed to maintain the commercial sterility of their contents after processing, acting as a secure barrier against potentially harmful microorganisms that can negatively impact both freshness and food safety. When properly canned, products will remain shelf-stable as long as the integrity of the can remains intact. Any harmful or destructive organisms that favor conditions inside the can, or that may exist at normal storage temperatures, are destroyed prior to canning.

Outside of opening a can and testing its contents, visible damage and defects are generally the best gauges for identifying potential problems. Conventional thinking has always been that if a can shows any sign of damage, throw it out. As it turns out, this can be a very wasteful practice that may result in as much acceptable food being thrown-out as it does in unsafe food being removed from the supply chain.

So how can you determine when damage is extensive enough to represent a health hazard? By learning more about how to properly identify and classify can damage. In general, can damage may be classified into three categories: critical, major and minor.

To be considered “minor,” the damage or defect must not affect the integrity of the can’s hermetic seal. Small rust patches are considered minor damage as long as the material of the can is neither perforated nor pitted. Any rust that may be easily buffed away with a soft cloth will be considered minor. Dents in the end of any can may also be considered minor damage when the seams are neither creased nor sharp. Even moderate denting to the body of the can is considered to be relatively minor so long as the dent does not significantly affect either the   double seam or the side seam of the can in question.

“Major” damage is classified as defects that do not show visible signs of having compromised a can’s hermetic seal, but that are severe enough that there is a reasonable doubt. When it comes to rust, if the can appears pitted, the damage is considered to be major. Dents that cross over and significantly impact the side seam or double seam are also considered major. Additionally, if the body of a can or the double seam has been sharply distorted by a dent, there is a possibility that the internal coating of the can has been fractured. This situation is enough to classify as “major” damage and should result in the proper disposal of the damaged goods.

Generally speaking, “critical” defects fully compromise the hermetic seal of a can and pose the greatest health risk. Any rust damage that perforates a can’s exterior is considered to be critical and should result in immediate disposal. If cans have been crushed or dented to the point that they cannot be stacked on shelves or opened with a manual can opener, then the damage is considered to be critical as well. The same may be said of any can showing obvious signs of leakage, which may be the result of damage or evidence of an improper seal during the canning process. Another common critical defect is swelling. If a can bulges and swells at the ends, this could be evidence of harmful microbial activity inside the can unless the products are known to swell when canned (such as coffee, baking powder and molasses).

Knowing the difference between minor damage and the defects that may have serious food safety repercussions can save a foodservice operation time and money over the long term, resulting in a safer, more reliable food supply. But as a general rule, take it from Sysco QA: when in doubt, throw it out.

To see examples of can damage as classified by the USDA, click here.

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