You went on an extended camping trip and were seriously too lazy to bring your own supplies and actually cook some food. Or a really hungry bear just managed to wipe out your entire food supply on the said camping trip. Whatever the reason, you and your camping buddies are now currently facing a dilemma involving a tan package and the doubtful viability of its contents. Are you gonna eat it or not?
Is it still even edible? How long do MREs last, anyway?
What is an MRE?
MRE stands for Meals, Ready to Eat. They are defined as self-contained packages of food good for a single person. They are bought exclusively (supposedly) by the US military for its service members to be used in combat or wherever it is they are at where getting food is more hassle than staying alive.
Do not ask me how they got into that situation and I will not ask how you got an MRE, which is not meant to be sold to civilians in the first place. However, as there is currently no law against buying and selling MREs - unless you are in the military and you are doing the selling - the government really can’t do much about the MREs that are now in the hands of civilians - campers, hikers, doomsday preppers, and the like.
Although they certainly have come a long way since hardtack and endless meals of formless boiled meat in the glory days of the Civil War, MREs are far from the home-cooked meals every soldier looks forward to. In fact, they have acquired nicknames that are just as unsavory like, uh, Meals, Rarely Edible. Another good one is Mr. E as in mystery because heaven only knows what it truly is made of.
Other favorites include Meals Rejected by Everyone or even Meals Rejected by the Enemy, Morale-Reducing Elements, and Materials Resembling Edibles. The frankfurters, which come in packs of four, have also been called the Four Fingers of Death.
Why am I telling you this? Because you shouldn’t be judging the viability of an MRE based on its looks and taste alone. It already looks and tastes bad even long before the expiration date.
What does an MRE contain?
An MRE is meant to feed a grown man and you will find that it contains quite a lot of food in a single package. Typically, you will find the following in a single pack:
- The main course
- A side dish
- A dessert or snack, usually some form of fortified pastry, Soldier Fuel Bar, or commercial candy
- Crackers or bread
- Cheese, peanut butter, or jelly as a spread for your bread or crackers
- Powdered beverage mix
- A beverage mixing bag
- Utensils, although usually, it’s just a spoon
- Flameless ration heater or FRH
An accessory pack may contain the following:
- Xylitol chewing gum, which soldiers believe to bring bad luck
- A Water-resistant matchbook
- Napkin or toilet paper
- Moist towelette
- Seasonings like ketchup for your entree and creamer for your coffee
- Freeze-dried coffee powder
Each MRE contains about 1,200 calories, which is the average daily requirement of an adult. That should be plenty enough for a day of hiking.
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If MREs are made for the military, are there certain requirements it must fulfill?
An MRE is made to endure a parachute drop from a height of 380 meters or 1,250 feet. Without parachutes, they are expected to make it intact even from a height of 30 meters or 98 feet. These things are clearly made of sterner stuff than I am.
These packages should also have a minimum shelf life of three and a half years at 27 degrees Celsius or 81 degrees Fahrenheit. At 38 degrees Celsius (100 degrees Fahrenheit), they are expected to last at least 9 months.
As they are going to be carried around by men carrying a lot of gear and guns, an MRE is expected to weigh around 510 to 740 grams only depending on the menu. This makes an MRE ideal for long camping trips where you would want to make as much space for other things as possible as it takes up less of the real estate in your bag and weighs less than a kilogram in spite of the whopping nutritional value.
If you think you can get away with cooking some bacon in bear country, good luck with that and the hungry bear coming your way. Bears happen to have an excellent sense of smell when it comes to food and if it smells good to you, it will smell great to them. You won’t be having such problems with a sealed MRE. Even hungry bears won’t go after them.
So…How long is an MRE expected to last?
Given that an MRE is properly stored at 27 degrees Celsius, an MRE should last a minimum of three and a half years but you might have heard of some guy who ate an 50-year-old MRE and found it…passable.
And yes, he lived to tell the tale here.
For you to be able to decide if you and your camping buddies should go ahead, open that pack, and devour its contents, you can try to decode the age and viability of the said MRE in your possession.
As with all things military, you can’t expect them to make things easier for civilians. They speak a language that is all their own so you should know better than to expect an MRE with “Best Before MM/DD/YYYY” stamped into it. No, they have date codes stamped into it instead but don’t worry, I have you covered.
An MRE is usually marked with its production date in the American format of MM/DD/YYYY (thank heavens!). This is usually followed by the lot number, which consists of a four-digit code. The first digit is the last digit of the year, as in 1 for 2001, 2 for 2002, and so on. The next three digits are equal to the day of the year, like 032 for February 01 or 085 for March 26.
The date the MRE is packed is usually marked as the two-digit month/two-digit year (MM/YY).In the military, MRE cases are usually inspected and tasted three years from production and those that pass this, uh, taste test are stamped with the Inspection Date in the same way as the Packing Date.
Before you go on thinking that MREs are opened and taste-tested every three years until they fail and manage to send a taster to the infirmary, MREs are discarded after five years.That ten-year old MRE? Good luck with that one.
Eyeballing the Bag Color
Just as you aren’t wearing your dad’s groovy bell-bottom pants today, MREs also underwent a makeover through the years so you can estimate its age by the color of the bag alone.
MREs that were born in 1995 or earlier are dark brown in color whereas those who were made in 1996 onwards come in tan-colored bags.
However, there are some exceptions to this rule like the #4 Chili Macaroni that came out in 1995 in a brown bag and every #4 Chili Macaroni ever since has always come in a brown bag until 2003.
Remember how MRE viability depends on the temperatures it has been subjected to? Well, they made an easier way to tell if the pack in your hands will sustain you until you get to a proper food source or send you packing straight to the hospital.
Perhaps the most reliable way to tell if an MRE is still edible is through the Time-Temperature Indicator but this was only made available in 1997.
Basically, you will find two circles in this indicator, one inside of the other. The outer circle should be lighter than the inner circle. As long as it remains this way, MREs are supposed to still be good enough for eating.
Other Indicators: Other things that should tip you off is the integrity of the package itself. If the package appears intact without signs of tearing, punctures, or swelling, an MRE might still be good enough to eat.
So…getting back to you, your buddies and your MRE in question, I suggest you take a look at the Time-Temperature Indicator and if you find that the inner circle is still lighter than the outer circle and the package appears intact without holes or signs of swelling, it could be safe enough to eat.
An MRE is made to last a minimum of three and a half years at 27 degrees Celsius but changes in storage temperature could affect its viability.As with all things contraband and semi-contraband, eat at your own risk.
Did you find this article helpful? Have you eaten an MRE before? How old was it? Let us know in the comments below and don’t forget to share this article with your family and friends!