(Please note that some of the commercial products described below may have changed since this was written in 2003/2004. Also ,Captain Dave is aware that a number of the links in this section are no longer active. However, we are obligated to reproduce the FAQ in its original form, so we have left them in. We apologize for any inconvenience.)
The Meal, Ready to Eat (MRE) is the current U.S. military field ration for those times when troops are out of contact with their regular mess facilities. In the early 1980’s they replaced the older C & K-rations that had honorably served since the Second World War. These new rations represented a major leap forward in food preservation technology by disposing of the heavy, unwieldy metal can and replacing it with the much lighter, flexible “retort pouch.” These pouches are the beefier cousins of the aluminized Mylar bag much used in long-term food storage and are basically constructed the same way. A thick outer layer of tough polyester film, a thin middle layer of aluminum foil for its excellent gas barrier properties, and an inner layer of food safe polypropylene film to allow heat sealing. Food is placed in the pouch then specially heat processed for preservation which renders it microbiologically shelf-stable, fully cooked, and ready to eat.
What’s in an MRE?
From the Defense Logistics Agency Subsistence web site (http://www.dscp.dla.mil/subs/rations/meals/mres.htm) we find this:
The twenty-four different varieties of meals can be seen in the menu table. Components are selected to complement each entrée as well as provide necessary nutrition. The components vary among menus and include both Mexican and white rice, fruits, bakery items, crackers, spreads, beverages, snacks, candy, hot sauce, and chow mein noodles for the pork chow mein entrée. The fruits may be applesauce, pears, peaches, pineapple, or strawberry. The bakery items include a fudge brownie, cookies, fruit bars, a toaster pastry, and pound cake in flavors of lemon, vanilla, orange, pineapple, and chocolate mint. Each meal also contains an accessory packet. The contents of one MRE meal bag provides an average of 1250 kilocalories (13 % protein, 36 % fat, and 51 % carbohydrates). It also provides 1/3 of the Military Recommended Daily Allowance of vitamins and minerals determined essential by the Surgeon General of the United States.
All of which is then placed inside of a heavy plastic pouch and sealed. Being field rations they had to be designed to take considerable punishment in packs, air drops, and other forms of abuse remaining safely intact until consumed. By and large they do just that.
All of this sounds rather attractive to the person interested in emergency preparedness and they are. So much so, in fact, that several years ago the U.S. military finally said “enough!” to the continuing losses of their rations to the civilian market and banned any further civilian sale. All new MRE complete ration packs now bear the words “U.S. Government Property. Commercial Resale Is Unlawful.”
This did slow the loss rate somewhat, but anyone that wants the real thing can still get them from military personnel they may know, at gun shows, some military surplus shops, or via E-Bay. Whether you should do this is up to you, but I will give a couple of cautions here:
#1 – Being a back channel acquisition chances are you have no way of knowing the storage history of what you’re buying. Maybe it’s been sitting in some nice cool warehouse since it was produced or maybe it bounced around in the back of a deuce-and-a-half in the Nevada desert for a month last summer. If you don’t know where it’s been how can you estimate how much useful shelf-life it may have left?
#2 – Make sure what you’re buying really is a military MRE or MRE component. Some of the civilian commercial products can look remarkably similar, but are not quite the same. Know what you’re looking at and make it clear with the person you’re buying from that you want genuine military issue (if that’s what you want).
MRE Heaters: These devices will either come with your MRE at the time of purchase or they can be bought separately. They contain a small amount of salt, magnesium, and iron and when you add a small amount of water they undergo a flameless chemical reaction that will heat an 8 oz MRE entrée by roughly 100° Fahrenheit (37°C) in about ten minutes. As water is what starts the reaction it is imperative the heaters be kept dry until used. If stored in an area of high humidity the heaters can undergo a slow reaction leading to degraded performance later or even complete failure over time. As a part of the chemical reaction the heaters release small amounts of hydrogen gas which is generally harmless but large numbers of heaters in a damp, sealed storage area could conceivably present a danger. This is unlikely unless you’re storing many cases of heaters. In such an event keep them in an air tight storage container with some desiccant.
While any MRE can be eaten cold these heaters can certainly improve the palatability of the food. Lacking a heater you can simply boil the individual retort pouches in water for a few minutes, lay them in the sun to warm, or tuck them in your shirt. The one thing you should not do is expose them to direct flame.
For more detailed information on U.S. military, civilian, some foreign military MREs,
and other rations please see the excellent MRE Info website at
U.S. MILITARY MRE SHELF LIFE
Much discussion has gone into how long one should keep MREs on hand before rotating them out of stock. In this regard they’re no different than any other type of preserved food. The longer you keep them on hand the more unpalatable and non-nutritious they will become with heat playing a large role in shortening their useful lifespan.
The short answer to the shelf-life question (from http://www.dscp.dla.mil/subs/rations/meals/mres.htm) is simply “The shelf life of the MRE is three (3) years at 80 degrees F. However, the shelf life can be extended through the use of cold storage facilities prior to distribution.”
Of course, that’s at 80° Fahrenheit (27°C). What if your storage temperature is different? Then you need the storage life chart that was developed by the U.S. Army’s NATIC Research Laboratories which basically says that at a given storage temperature an MRE will remain palatable for so many months as illustrated below:
|Storage Temperature||Shelf Life|
|120° F (49°C)||1 month|
|110° F (43°C)||5 months|
|100° F (37°C)||22 months|
|90° F (32°C)||55 months|
|80° F (27°C)||76 months|
|70° F (21°C)||100 months|
|60° F (15°C)||130 months +|
Note: As with any other stored food, time and temperature have a cumulative effect. For example, storage at 100° F. for 11 months moved to 70°F(21°C) would lose one half of the 70°F. storage.
A complete shelf-life chart for all U.S. military rations may be found here:
U.S. CIVILIAN MREs (WORNICK, SOPAKCO, OTHERS?)
Except for contract overruns on individual components actual military MREs, especially complete MRE ration packs, are not legal for sale on the civilian market. Recognizing there was a civilian market for such rations both Wornick and Sopakco through its Crown Point, limited, subsidiary brought out similar products for commercial sale. Their complete civilian ration packs are not precisely the same as their military cousins, but the individual components are usually produced on the same production lines.
Because there are no legal restrictions on their sale these civilian MREs are easier to find and are generally available in three basic forms –individual components, complete ration packs, and multi-serving tray packs meant for group feeding. Exact menus vary over time, usually being a subset of whatever the companies are producing for the military at the time of their production so I’m not going to try to address specific menus.
Some of the typical differences between military and civilian MREs are:
Menu choice. Military MREs presently have twenty four different menu choices. Their civilian equivalents are currently limited to twelve.
Ration heaters. These are standard with military MREs, but you may have to pay extra to get them with the civilian equivalents.
Total amount of food. Many of the civilian offerings contain less total food than military MREs, typically in the form of fewer side items. One notable difference is that fewer of the civilian rations contain the little Tabasco packets than their military counterparts.
The spoon. The spoons in the civilian packets are not the same as in the military rations. The civilian spoon is white plastic while the military spoon is brown and of a longer length which makes it easier to get to the bottom of the pouches without getting food on your fingers. This strikes me as particularly chintzy on the manufacturer’s part.
For more detailed information on U.S. military, civilian, and some foreign military MREs,
and other rations please see the excellent MRE Info website at
U.S. CIVILIAN MRE SHELF LIVES
One would think that the shelf lives of U.S. military and civilian MREs would be the same, but are they? If you look at the manufacturer’s websites for what they say about their civilian equivalent rations we find:
Crown Point, Ltd (SOPAKCO)
How long will these products last?
SOPAKCO Packaging uses an estimated shelf life figure of “3-5 years, plus or minus” for its MRE-type pouched food products. Actual shelf life may vary from this estimate. A key factor effecting actual shelf life is the temperature of the storage environment. Storage at temperatures higher than 85F (85 degrees Fahrenheit) may shorten the shelf life of MRE-type food products. On the other hand, lowering the storage temperature will help extend the products’ shelf life. This effect is common to most processed food products.
The shelf life figures given below for MRE’s are based on studies conducted by the U.S. Army’s NATIC Research Laboratories. This study was conducted by NATIC without participation of the MRE manufacturers. As such, SOPAKCO Packaging cannot verify the test procedures used by the NATIC labs, nor do we adopt these shelf life figures as a guarantee of any sort. The data is useful, though, as a general indication of the effects of storage temperatures on the shelf life of MRE-type food products.
Temperature (Fahrenheit): 100º 90º 85º 80º 75º 70º 60º
Storage Life in Months: 22 55 60 76 88 100 130+
The above storage data and time periods were based on “acceptable taste” measures, which is a subjective standard that may vary among each individual. Test participants were asked to indicate which products they were presented would be rated to still be of “acceptable taste”. Responses were noted, and average values were calculated to yield the data above.
The above data does not indicate the maximum useful life of MRE food products. The NATIC study noted that nutritional value and product safety value of the products often extended far beyond these time points.
Again, SOPAKCO Packaging in no way adopts the NATIC shelf life figures as any form of express or implied guarantee of the actual shelf life of its MRE food products. This information is provided as a general indication of the effects of storage temperature on MRE-type packaged foods.
Long Life Food Depot (The Wornick Company’s civilian sales agent)
How long do MRE products last – what is their Shelf Life
We guarantee our MRE products to last 5 years from the date of sale, in a room temperature environment (70 deg. F), no matter what the production date.
Of course, the production date is visible on all our entrees and on most side dishes, desserts, and other components.
The production date is a four digit number (date code) on each item, example “2156.” In this example the 2 represents the year 2002 (a “3” would represent 2003, etc.), the 156 represents the 156th day of the year. See the top of the individual box or look on pouch for the Date Code.
At this time nearly all of our MRE products were manufactured between 2002 and 2003 and have always been kept in a climate-controlled warehouse to ensure freshness.
The official MRE Shelf Life Chart, created by the Army’s Natick Research Lab, gives the whole picture and explains why we are prepared to guarantee our products for 5 years from date of sale. It is clear that the wholesomeness of the products extends well beyond 5 years. To see this chart and a more complete discussion of MRE Shelf LIfe, click here.
Which takes you to the text below
MRE Shelf Life:
A main concern in the development and testing of rations for our armed forces has always been SHELF LIFE. An amazing amount of research has been done in the development of the retort pouch and the MRE to determine the exact length of time and the exact conditions under which it is safe to store the entrees and the side dishes.
The main thing we have to work with is the shelf life chart (shown below) compiled by the Army’s Natick Research labs. This gives a very good overview and summary of all the findings gathered from all the testing of MRE products. However, it leaves many questions unanswered. Here are additional facts and observations we have gathered about MRE shelf life:
1) The shelf life ratings shown in the chart below were determined by taste panels, panels of “average” people, mostly office personnel at the Natick labs. Their opinions were combined to determine when a particular component or, in this case, the entire MRE ration, was no longer acceptable.
2) The shelf life determinations were made solely on the basis of taste, as it was discovered that acceptable nutritional content and basic product safety would extend way beyond the point where taste degradation would occur. This means that MREs would be safe and give a high degree of food value long after the official expiration of the products as determined by taste.
3) MRE pouches have been tested and redesigned where necessary according to standards much more strict than for commercial food. They must be able to stand up to abuse tests such as obstacle course traversals in field clothing pockets, storage outdoors anywhere in the world, shipping under extremely rough circumstances, 100% survival of parachute drops, 75% survival of free-fall air drops, severe repetitive vibration (1 hour at 1 G vibration), 7,920 individual pouch drops from 20 inches, and individual pouches being subjected to a static load of 200 lbs for 3 minutes.
4) Freezing an MRE retort pouch does not destroy the food inside, but repeated freezing increases the chances that the stretching and stressing of the pouch will cause a break in a layer of the laminated pouch. These pouches are made to withstand 1,000 flexes, but repetitive freezing does increase the failure rate by a small fraction of a percent.
MRE Storage Life Chart A graphic of the chart I have reproduced above.
As we can see both company’s refer to the NATIC shelf-life chart then give qualifiers “The NATIC study noted that nutritional value and product safety value of the products often extended far beyond these time points.” and “This means that MREs would be safe and give a high degree of food value long after the official expiration of the products as determined by taste.” Neither state how much or what kinds of nutrition would remain once the food goes beyond it’s recommended shelf life, but it can be safely assumed the most sensitive nutrients (notably vitamins A and C among others) will have significantly declined. Old food is not likely to be attractive food, nor will it give long term nutrition, but if it’s all you’ve got it’ll still be safe to eat it.
These are basically MREs little different in form than the American made product but made by companies in these respective nations. Shelf-life is the same. Menu choices reflect British/Canadian tastes, of course. Company contact information can be found in the Suppliers Section.
One minor difference seems to be with the Hot Pack company of U.K./Canada in that they claim their ration heaters are somewhat larger than the ones packaged with U.S. MREs
From the company’s web site:
Will defrost ice or snow for drinking water.
Will heat 300 g (10.6 oz.) of food or water from room temperature to 80°C (178°F) in 12 minutes.
Will provide a source of heat for up to forty five minutes after activation.
Is sometimes reusable for a limited heat cycle (dependent on how much of the heating element was exhausted in the first cycle).
The chemical reaction is totally safe. When water is added to the heater, the mixture bubbling away inside the sleeve (magnesium hydroxide) is a pharmaceutical chemical used by doctors to treat stomach acidity.
Food grade ingredients are used in the manufacturing of the heater.
Once activated, the heater will keep hot for approximately 45 minutes.
It can be used as a body warmer or to heat a drink after heating the meal.
OTHER SELF-HEATING READY TO EAT TYPE PRODUCTS
As one might expect once the bugs were worked out of retort pouch and flameless ration heater technologies the manufacturing companies that produce them would try them on the civilian market. This has been a little slow in coming, mostly because in the modern day ‘fresh is best and refrigeration is cheap’ world their market segment is somewhat small, but they are arriving. At the time of this writing there are several products now available, some of them quite new.
HeaterMeals are a type of MRE in casual clothing. Like the rations above they are a retort pouch preserved meal with its own built in heater. The heater itself is the same technology as the MRE heaters (the company makes them for the military), but a little different in form, to include having its own self-contained water to start the heating reaction. The meals themselves aren’t packaged with the idea of rough handling in mind, but they’ll keep well on the shelf.
The meals themselves come in two basic forms:
An entrée pack with the heater, seasoning packet and cutlery
A complete meal pack with the heater, entrée, seasoning packet, cutlery, side items like fruit, snack, and dessert, and a bottle of water to drink.
If you’re not having to use them under rough field conditions they represent a self-heating, completely self contained meal.
These meals can be ordered from the manufacturer, a number of dealers which are listed on the company website, or you can often find them at truck stops, some supermarkets, sporting goods stores, and other such businesses.
Shelf life info for HeaterMeals was found at: http://www.heatermeals.com/faq.html#shelflife
What is the shelf-life of HeaterMeals and HeaterMeals Plus Meals?
HeaterMeals are a high quality canned food, so storage is easy.
HeaterMeals Dinner entrees do not require refrigeration, and are shelf-stable for approximately 2 years. HeaterMeals entrees come with a “Please use by” date stamped on each box. This date is two years after we package the meals, as this is the optimum time to eat your HeaterMeals.
The HeaterMeals Breakfast “Pancakes, Syrup & Sausage Links” and all HeaterMeals Plus meals have a one year shelf-life.
HeaterMeals dinner entrees are designed to safely store (at 80 degrees Fahrenheit) for at least two years; three years or more, if stored at a temperature of 60ºF or cooler. The shelf-life of HeaterMeals can be even longer; and the unique packaging of the entree and water pouch permits freezing for unlimited storage.
HOT CANS – UNITED KINGDOM
In the United Kingdom there is another entry in the self-heating meal field. This is the Hot Can from Hot Can UK, Limited. It’s an interesting blend of old and different new tech in that the food itself is contained in a run-of-the-mill pop-top metal can, but the food can is contained in a sealed larger can filled with calcium oxide (quicklime) and a separate water capsule. When needed the self-contained water capsule is pierced with the provided tool allowing moisture to seep into the dry quicklime below and the food can pop-top is removed. In twelve to fifteen minutes the can will have heated to 65°-70° Celsius and remains at that temperature for roughly forty five minutes which means once you’ve finished the food inside you can quickly rinse the can and heat something else, perhaps a beverage.
There are a variety of meals available from the company, each weighing about 400 grams (roughly 14 ozs). Shelf life is “Three years from manufacturing date, or as indicated on printed bottom end of can.” The heater itself releases no harmful or dangerous gasses and if for some reason you should break one open and spill some of the quicklime on yourself it can simply be washed off again with water.
Company contact information can be found in the Suppliers Section. Hot Cans are probably also available through retail dealers in the U.K. and elsewhere.
ALPINEAIRE INSTANT – SELF HEATING MEALS
New on the market from AlpineAire is their entry into the self-heating meal arena. Uses the same retort and flameless heater technology as MREs but in different packaging. Snap the bottom of the package and in eight minutes your entrée is hot and ready to go. As I write this there are only two entrees with more coming in the near future. They’re rather pricey at a suggested retail of $8.95 for a mere 240 calories worth of vegetarian food. Still, it’s a start and with time they may both lower the price and increase the menu choices.
Alpineaire advises an eighteen month shelf life for this particular product line.
They may be ordered directly from AlpineAire or through their many stocking dealers.
MOUNTAIN HOUSE MOUNTAIN OVEN
Mountain House isn’t really offering a true Meal, Ready to Eat since you still have to add water to their freeze dried/dehydrated food, but I’m including it here since it’s close. Basically, what they’re offering is their own version of a flameless ration heater and some new packaging of a few of their entrees that allows the pouches to be put into their heaters to be warmed. They call their heater a “Mountain Oven” though they really don’t bake anything, just warms things up.
To use their heater you dissolve one of the furnished salt tablets in a plastic bottle that comes in the kit. Place a “heat activation pad” in the bottom of the insulated over pouch then pour the salt water on it. Open up the food pouch, pour in the required amount of water then put the pouch inside the insulated bag and zip it closed (the outer bag is vented). Twenty minutes later the food should be about 100° F. (38°C) hotter than when you started.
Each Mountain Oven kit is good for five uses. At a suggested retail of $11.99 per kit that’s about $2.40 per use which makes it rather pricey compared to the ordinary MRE heaters already on the market which can usually be purchased for about a buck apiece or less. Still, like the AlpineAire entry it’s a start and with time they may come down in price and perhaps be easier to use as well.
The Mountain Oven kits can be ordered from Mountain House directly or purchased from one of their many dealers as they are distributed.