Ah, glorious Spam. That beloved blue can is a staple in pantries all across America and the world. Greatly favored by campers for its convenience, homeowners who want a quick bite and even preppers for its long lifespan.
Spam is a tasty, versatile and, most importantly for our purposes, shelf-stable source of protein and calories.
Spam’s iconic status has led to a fair share of urban legends regarding its composition and lifespan. The latter is an important question at least: how long does Spam last? How long before it spoils on you, potentially making you sick?
Spam does not keep forever, but it will last for a very long time in your pantry. Despite having a shorter sell-by date Spam, in a can that is undamaged and in good shape, should last anywhere between 3 and 5 years sitting on the shelf. Temperature extremes may alter this time somewhat. The manufacturer, Hormel Foods, recommends that you always consume your Spam by the sell-by date on the can.
What?! I thought SPAM was supposed to last forever?!
I know, I know. Spam will spoil in the end. It turns out that, just like Twinkies (another member of the eternally fresh mythos), they won’t keep perpetually.
Despite rumors of being made from at least 50% meat preservatives, Spam in actuality only has six ingredients, and none of them are super preservative. Per Hormel Foods website its ingredients are pork and ham, salt, sugar, water, potato starch and sodium nitrite. That’s it.
So the good news is Spam is not some crazy unknown mystery meat product. And even more good news, at least for the purposes of making sure we have fresh meat to eat in a SHTF situation, is that sodium nitrite is an effective and potent preservative.
This is the ingredient that ensures Spam will maintain its texture, color and of course freshness.
So, hopefully now you can enjoy Spam with a little less guilt and concern that you’re eating some quasi-food. But perhaps we should dig a little deeper.
Even three years is a long time for canned meat. What processes or ingredients yield such a long shelf life, and how dependable is that estimate?
The Rest of the Shelf-Life Story
The preservatives in Spam are not solely responsible for its long shelf life. The cooking and packaging process at the factory also has a big role. Spam starts its life as pork and ham, which are then pre-ground and mixed together.
After that they pile in the salt (itself a preservative), the sugar, and the rest of the ingredients then mix it all up for 20 minutes. Once this mixture comes up to temperature it’s time to put it in cans.
12 ounces of the delicious Spam mixture is added to the familiar oval metal can. These cans are moved by conveyor belt, not human hands, to a machine where the lids are added through a vacuum sealing process.
The vacuum sealing process by itself destroys any microorganisms in the can, halts enzymes from reacting, and prevents bacterial growth from occurring. But we’re not done yet.
After the vacuum sealing process is finished the cans are cooked and then cooled in a process taking about three hours.
The cooking process renders the Spam ready to eat, of course, and further kills off any microorganisms that may be lingering. After that it’s off to get a label and adios!
That’s the sum of Spam’s shelf life: meat preservatives in conjunction with minimal human handling, and excellent food preparation and packaging at the factory means unopened Spam will reliably have a several-year shelf life. Depend on it.
But that being said, you shouldn’t assume any old dusty can of Spam you find is safe to eat if you don’t know when it was purchased.
Any canned food, meat, fruit or vegetable is completely dependent on the structural Integrity of its can and the seal to ensure freshness and safety.
If you ever knew anyone in your family who was always cautious to inspect the cans before buying them at the grocery store, now you know why.
A dent, a ding or any other incidental damage can potentially ruin a can seal, or breach the can liner if present, and render the cans internal environment no longer germ-free.
Cans that have those easy open pull tab tops, of which Spam cans are one, seem to be especially vulnerable to breaching from dropping, smashing, denting, etc.. What I’m trying to say is that these cans are not indestructible!
Don’t worry too much about it though. If you take care to pick out good intact cans at the grocery store, and then treat them with a modicum of care transporting them home to your shelves, you shouldn’t have anything to worry about.
Boldly mark your cans with a sharpie for date of purchase, and use that for making your stored food rotation decisions.
How long will Spam last after it’s been opened?
While I don’t expect an open can of Spam to last in a survival situation, considering you’re going to be eating it in short order, if you still have power or live in a colder climate you’ll be happy to know that it will keep for quite a few days.
After Spam has been opened, you can expect it to last for anywhere between 7 and 10 days – with refrigeration! Now, this is a bit of a deviation from what Hormel Foods recommends.
They will tell you the open Spam will only last 2 to 3 days with refrigeration. But considering Spam’s composition, use of preservatives and significant salt content, 7 to 10 days is in all likelihood the more accurate figure.
The reason for this is that it is highly similar to other preserved canned meat products, namely corned beef and deviled ham, that will last for 7 to 10 days under refrigeration after being opened.
I’m not sure why Hormel Foods would prescribe such a short lifespan for Spam and not similar meats, but there’s absolutely no reason why you should expect your Spam to keep any less than 7 to 10 days under refrigeration after being opened.
Contrary to popular opinion, Spam will not keep forever, not even sitting patiently on your pantry shelf. While it does have a longer shelf life than the sell-by date would suggest, it is not indefinite.
In ideal conditions with an intact can and seal, you can expect to get anywhere from three to five years of fresh, delicious, salty life out of a can of Spam.
A versatile, tasty and stable source of protein, Spam is a good choice and low-maintenance option for any prepper who wants to add some shelf-stable protein to their survival stores.