The Shelf Life of Dry Sausages

There is a deli not to far from me that stocks nice Italian style dry sausages. They look and taste delicious.  I have noticed that he always has them hanging up without refrigeration. I have not been able to get a straight answer as to how long the sausage will store, but I have talked to people who claim it will store for several years.

Dried sausages have been around for thousands of years as a way to preserve meat. The problem with going back to these old-time recipes is that we don’t always know what changes have been made in the recipes in the name of quicker and easier production. Many of our modern food processers have modified their recipes so that the sausages have shorter shelf lives.

I have been doing some research on this subject but have not come up with anything firm that I am willing to bet my family on. The United States Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) puts out the following information:

“Dry and semi-dry sausages are possibly the largest category of dried meats, particularly in the United States. These products can be fermented by bacterial growth for preservation and to produce the typical tangy flavor. Alternatively, they may be cultured with lactic acid — much as cheese, pickle, and yogurt makers do — to eliminate the fermentation phase and shorten the process. They are, with a few exceptions, cooked.

Fermentation is one of the oldest methods of preserving meats. Dry sausages — such as pepperoni, and semi-dry sausages such as Lebanon bologna and summer sausage, have had a good safety record for hundreds of years.

In this procedure, a mixture of curing ingredients, such as salt and sodium nitrite, and a “starter” culture of lactic acid-bacteria, is mixed with chopped and ground meat, placed in casings, fermented and then dried by a carefully controlled, long, continuous air-drying process. The amount of acid produced during fermentation and the lack of moisture in the finished product after drying typically have been shown to cause pathogenic bacteria to die.

Dry sausages require more time to make than other types of sausages and are a more concentrated form of meat. Dried sausages range from 60% to 80% of their original weight before drying.

Semi-dry sausages are usually heated in the smokehouse to fully cook the product and partially dry it. Semi-dry sausages are semi-soft sausages with good keeping qualities due to their lactic acid fermentation and sometimes heavy application of smoke. Some are mildly seasoned and some are quite spicy and strongly flavored.

Interestingly, over 50 countries around the world have their own versions of dry and semi-dry sausages, from botillo in Portugal to Som Moo in Laos.

What are examples of dry and semi-dry sausages that are normally found in U.S. grocery stores and delis?

  • Genoa Salami
  • Sopresetta
  • Andouille
  • Pepperoni
  • Chorizo
  • Salami
  • Summer sausage
  • Lebanon bologna
  • Cervelat
  • Thuringer

Are any sausages shelf stable?

Yes, some sausages are shelf stable, which means they do not have to be kept refrigerated in order to be safe to eat. In the U.S., if a particular type of sausage is shelf stable, it is not required to have a safe handling statement, cooking directions or a notice to “Keep Refrigerated”. Personally, I would not plan on storing any type of sausage for more than a few months, and, in fact, that isn’t a problem since everyone in my family loves sausage!

However, if the sausage remains in its original packaging and is stored in a cook, dark, and dry location, free from pests, it could be safe and tasty to eat for much longer.

Should people “at risk” eat dry sausages?

It’s possible that bacterium E. coli O157:H7 can survive the process of making sausage, namely dry fermenting. In 1994, it was reported that a few kids became sick after eating dry cured salami because it contained that bacteria.

After that outbreak, the Food Safety and Inspection Service, FSIS, developed processing rules for making dry sausages that must be followed and began to test fermented sausages for salmonella and listeria monocytogenes.

Because of this possibility, people in higher risk categories, such as elderly adults, very young children, pregnant women, and those with weakened immune systems, could become extremely ill if the bacterium E. Coli O157:H7 survived the fermenting process.

Dates on Packaged Sausages

Most people are surprised to learn that dating on food products isn’t required by the Federal government but, in fact, is voluntary. Dried sausages might contain any one of these notices:

“Sell By” date – tells the store how long to display the product for sale. You should buy the product before the date expires.

“Best if Used By” date – date by which product should be used for best flavor and quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.

“Use-By” date – the last date recommended for use of the product while at peak quality.”

FSIS says that whole hard/dry sausages may be stored 6 weeks in your pantry and indefinitely in the refrigerator.  After opening, they should be used in 3 weeks even if stored in the refrigerator.

If you make homemade sausage, however, you cannot rely on these dates and be 100% certain that any batch of sausage is safe, long-term, for human consumption.



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