Meals, Ready to Eat (MREs) are the nutritional go-to for the military and survivalists alike. These pre-cooked meals are designed to withstand all extremes and still be delicious. You can drop them, hit them, carry them for miles in a pack and they are still fine. The apple sauce still tastes like apple sauce and the corned beef hash still tastes like corned beef hash.
There are some minor differences between the military and civilian versions like the inclusion of toilet paper and chewing gum for soldiers. Other than that they are the same. The military toughness of MREs, even the civilian brands, is what has made them so popular among hunters, campers, and emergency preppers. You can buy MREs, store them for years, then take them with you on a hike and they are still good to eat. That begs the question though, just how long can you store them? How long do MREs really last?
Officially, how long do MREs last?
An entire MRE, when stored in a dry place at 80°F, can last for three years. That is the official word on MRE shelf life but it isn’t that simple. The reality is that the cooler the storage temperature, the longer the MRE will last and, even once some elements of the MRE have gone bad, others will still be ok to eat. Whereas an MRE stored at 120°F can still last for a month, storing it at 50°F could make it last up to five years.
Some people have even frozen their MREs in an attempt to stretch out their lifespan. This isn’t the best idea though. If a frozen MRE pouch is thawed and then frozen again it can tear and this can compromise the whole meal. If you do freeze an MRE you should plan to eat it immediately after thawing it. Also, just because it is frozen does not mean it is ok to eat it after the 5-year mark.
How can I tell how old the MRE is?
The U.S. government used to publish a shelf life chart for MREs that was so wrong people actually got sick following its advice. It basically suggested that everything in an MRE would still be good after almost ten years if only it was kept at or below 60°F. The problem was in the cheeses, cheese spreads, apple sauce, and other non-dehydrated fruit products mainly. People were trusting the chart over the appearance, smell, and taste of the food.
The point in mentioning this is that no matter what method you use to assess the shelf life of an MRE, and there are some reliable ones, you should still pay attention to the food itself before you eat it. Check if the packaging is defective, if the seals have come apart, and if there are tears in the bags. You should also check for bad odors and see if the food looks palatable.
A bit of food poisoning from a defective manufacturer can be gotten over if you’re eating an MRE at home. A survival situation or the middle of a backcountry hike makes for a different story. It is important to check for the shelf life of your MRE’s but you must still inspect the food itself before you eat it.
Still, you might be asking, since there is no expiration date to be found on an MRE how exactly can you check the shelf life? There are two main ways to check if the MREs might still be good. The first is by checking the time and temperature indicator on a case of MREs. The second and more specific method involves reading the manufacture date on the MRE.
MRE time and temperature indicators
Around 1997 cases of MREs were equipped with something called time and temperature indicator (TTI). This little addition came in the form of a small sticker on the outside of a full MRE case and it looks like a small bullseye with two little red/orange circles one over the other. The smaller brighter colored circle is superimposed over the larger darker colored one so that you can see a difference between them.
As long as they are that color, the smaller inner circle brighter than the larger outside circle, everything in the box should be fresh and ready to eat. If the inner circle and the outer circle are the same color or the inner circle is darker than the outer circle than means the case of MREs has sat too long at too high a temperature.
The time and temperature indicator is fairly accurate because it can reflect the effects of temperature changes the MRE case was exposed to. If a case was stored in a cooler at 60°F for a couple of years, but at some point during that time the cooler malfunctioned and temperatures spiked, the TTI would be able to show if the MREs in the case were good or not.
MRE manufacture date
Although MREs are not individually printed with an expiration date they do have other information printed on them. Both the box and each individual pouch have a four-digit code stamped on them which can be decoded to tell you the exact date and year the MRE was made. These four digits are a modified version of what is called the Julian date code.
Basically, the way it works is that the first digit of the code is the year of manufacture while the last three digits encode the month and day of that year. As an example, a four-digit code such as 5121 would mean the MRE was made on the 121st day of 2015, or May 1, 2015. These codes will sometimes have letters at the end of them which simply indicate a particular batch. You might see 7350B which just means that MRE is from batch B made on the 350th day of 2017, or December 15, 2017.
You might have noticed that the code only allows for one digit for the year, the last digit specifically, so you might rightfully wonder how manufacturers differentiate, say, 2005 from 2015. The short answer is that they don’t. It is assumed that people won’t be keeping their MREs for more than 10 years because this would be dangerous by any standard. The average shelf life of an MRE is calculated at 5 years as an ideal maximum and that clock starts ticking from the date of manufacture.
Does long term storage affect the nutritional value of an MRE?
One MRE is designed to meet one-third of the military’s recommended daily allowance for nutrients and Calories. This typically comes out to about 1,250 Calories (13 percent protein, 36 percent fat, 51 percent carbohydrates) all spread out over the main entree, a side dish, dessert, bread, peanut butter, and a drink mix. This distribution is optimized for a soldier experiencing the duress of battle and hours of rucking and three of these MREs would be considered a full day’s worth of battlefield meals.
When MREs are stored appropriately, packaged appropriately and consumed within the right amount of time their nutritional value does not change and they are perfectly safe to eat. However, when the MREs are stored at higher temperatures and/or for longer than recommended things change. It’s all about the storage conditions.
Dairy-based and fruit-based products can go bad and they will make you sick if you eat them. Peanut butter also doesn’t do well standing the test of time. Other elements of the MRE, even if they look alright and are palatable, won’t have the same nutritional value that they would have within the recommended date ranges. Flavor also seriously suffers in old MREs. In a tight spot, they will be palatable enough but some components of the MRE won’t go down so easily.
The internet is full of anecdotal accounts of people happily eating MREs ten and even twenty-plus years after their manufacture dates. They report how they carefully avoid the foods that have gone bad and heartily enjoy the ones that haven’t. The truth is you can’t always tell if a food is dangerous to eat just from looking at it or smelling it. Also, just because one person could eat fifteen-year-old MRE ham doesn’t mean you can.
Manufacturing processes change over time too. There might be the occasional MRE entree that really does stand the test of time but that all depends on how it was made and preserved. Ingredients, storage temperatures, and package integrity can easily change from MRE to MRE. A food item that wasn’t previously made with perishable items could be now. Things change so risking your health and safety on a few internet anecdotes is not a good idea.
How to effectively store MREs
To get the most life and use out of the MREs that you have it is important that you store them properly. As previously mentioned, the temperature is the major determinant for how long your MRE remains edible. Almost everything else about MREs makes them resistant to most conditions so temperature becomes the most important thing wherever you store your MREs.
It is critical to be aware of exactly how the space you keep your MREs is temperature-controlled. If a space is kept cool by something that depends on electricity then your MREs are just one power outage or one power fluctuation away from being exposed to warmer temperatures that will shorten their shelf life. This makes the ideal storage space for your MREs a basement or interior closet. These are spaces where the temperature can stay fairly consistent and cool depending on the construction of your house.
It is also important to keep your MREs high and dry when possible. Even though the MRE packaging is tough and waterproof it is still better to keep them out of the reach of pests and stagnant water. It is best to store them on secure racks in a space that will stay around 60°F as often and as long as possible. This will guarantee you the best shelf life.
You shouldn’t freeze your MREs or store them in a freezer if you can help it. You also shouldn’t store them outside or in any place exposed to the elements. The name of the game is temperature control and maintaining the integrity of the packaging.
When to replace MREs
You can use the time-temperature indicator and the manufacture dates to determine when your MREs are past their prime. Five years should be your upper limit of time for holding on to MREs although some sources suggest you can get away with ten if needed. That isn’t universally recommended though, so five years is best.
If you are holding on to MREs for survival purposes then you should keep rotating them in accordance with their estimated shelf life. For example, if you are storing MREs at a consistent 80°F then they should last about three years.
However, let’s say you have already had them in storage for a little over two years. If something should happen where you need to rely on your MREs you might only get a little under a year’s worth of storage out of them at that point. For emergency survival purposes it is best to cycle through your MREs every year or so. That way they will stay freshest longest.
If an MRE is exposed to extreme temperatures then it might also be time to get rid of it. As mentioned before, you can freeze an MRE but you should eat it as soon as it is thawed. If you re-freeze it the packaging can become compromised and the whole meal can go bad. High temperatures drastically shorten the shelf life of an MRE too.
At 80°F, you get a few years out of an MRE but as you approach and/or pass 120°F the MREs shelf life drops to about one month. This is why it is important to store MREs in places that stay cool naturally and don’t rely on the power to do so. A power outage can quickly shorten the life of an MRE.
Another indicator that you need to get rid of an MRE is if the bag is bloated, punctured or generally damaged. A swollen or bloated MRE or MRE component can be an indicator of the Botulinum toxin which causes botulism. Even if only one part of the MRE is enlarged you should dispose of the entire thing. The risk isn’t worth it. If the bag or components are damaged this means the food could be spoiled or infected among other things. MREs are built tough but sometimes this happens.
Under any of these conditions, it is always better to get rid of an MRE than to risk eating what is inside. If the situation isn’t a matter of life and death in which food supplies are limited, there is no reason to risk your health. If you are in an emergency situation then you will need to weigh the risks, go hungry for sure or possibly become deathly ill. The swollen botulism MREs should always be a definite no go though.
A meal, ready to eat (MRE) is an essential part of any soldier or survivalist kit. Hunters, campers, hikers, and backpackers among others have also all enjoyed the rugged utility of a delicious MRE. These meals can seemingly endure anything from high temperatures to high falls. They do have their limits though and there are other options out there. When stored in a cool dry place you can expect a five-year shelf life. Anything beyond that becomes questionable.
When MREs go bad they can go very bad and eating one of these can easily make you sick. This is why it is very important to understand just how long an MRE will last. Using the time-temperature indicator and manufacture dates it is possible to do. Also, maintaining a certain degree of common sense and attention to detail helps as well. Keeping all of this in mind makes the use of MREs easy, enjoyable, and safe.
Bonus tip: Check out a taste test of an MRE chicken burrito bowl! If you haven’t used one before you can see how they work, learn what is often included, and hear about the taste!