Vacuum Packed Foods: Can they be Stored Forever?

Adair P Hoover
Home & Garden Information Center

Have you ever wondered how long you can store perishable foods that have been vacuum packed?   It would seem like air-proof packaging would keep them safe for a very long time - right??  

Not necessarily and here is why:

Vacuum packing, also referred to as reduced oxygen packaging (ROP), is a storage method commonly used by food manufacturers and in some home kitchens. This type of packaging is designed to remove the oxygen surrounding foods. When ROP is used in combination with refrigeration or freezing, it can significantly improve product life by reducing or destroying spoilage organisms, and thereby protecting against product shrinkage, oxidation and color deterioration.

Vacuum packing is great for extending food quality. However, it does not guarantee that foods will be safe indefinitely. Furthermore, when a reduced oxygen environment is combined with a specific set of conditions, there is a potential for the growth of some dangerous bacteria and their spores.

The Clostridium botulinum bacterium is an example of a foodborne pathogen that has the potential to be very dangerous in an oxygen-free environment. The bacteria and their spores can be present in foods without causing any harm, but when introduced into the perfect environment, the spores can change into the vegetative cells that produce the deadly botulinum toxin. The ideal conditions for toxin production include:  low oxygen, moisture, low-acid and temperatures between 40 °F and 120 °F.  In short, when you combine moist, low-acid food (meats and fish, for example) in a package that has no oxygen, and hold it at room temperature, you have provided the perfect setting for trouble.

This is by no means meant to suggest that vacuum packed foods are unsafe, but rather to point out that while ROP packaging is great for maintaining best quality, close attention to handling is required.

To maintain safety:  

  • Use vacuum packed meats and other low-acid foods by the “use by” date specified by the manufacture. If no “use by” date is provided, then you can find HGIC recommendations for the storage times of perishable foods at HGIC 3522, Food Storage: Refrigerator & Freezer.   If you want to prolong storage, then freeze it immediately.
  • Always keep perishable foods stored at temperatures of 40°F or below. This is extra critical when dealing with individually wrapped, reduced oxygen packaging.
  • Make sure that your refrigerator maintains a temperature between 34°F and 40°F.
  • Meticulously follow manufacturer’s instructions for thawing vacuum packed foods. Some manufactures specify that foods be removed from packaging to thaw.
  • Date foods before storing, and use within recommended times.
  • Cook all foods to safe internal temperatures.

These suggestions are not just for meats and seafoods, but apply to any food products that are moist and low-acid. For details on vacuum packing foods at home see: HGIC 3865, Vacuum Packaging Foods at Home.

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