Meals, Ready to Eat (MREs) offer a complete, pre-cooked meal that is, as the name suggests, ready to eat in any circumstances. Designed for military use, MREs provide rations in a sealed package that’s lighter than a can and can survive extreme drops and other impacts. As an army ration, that means it can last for quite a while in the right conditions.
All these features make for an attractive product for storage outside the army. MREs can have a decent shelf life, and their ready to eat state makes them great for use while camping, hunting, or emergency situations where power and access to food become limited. However, MREs don’t have a definite expiration date marked on them, bringing up the question of just how long do MREs last?
Effects on Shelf Life
MREs are meant to stand up to extreme conditions, but they’re not invincible. The packages are easy to open, and a careless tear can render one inedible. Most of all, MREs are very sensitive to temperature, so their storage conditions affect how long one can last.
An MRE at average temperatures of 75° F will last for about five years. This time frame is the same that the military rotates and replaces MRE stock in as well. However, this timeframe only applies if the storage temperature is at a constant of 75° F for those five years.
Higher temperature storage will an MRE’s shelf life drop, while lower temperatures can extend the shelf-life for longer. For example, an MRE stored at 120° F won’t last much longer than a month, and some MREs can last for up to ten years if kept in constant colder conditions.
You can check MRE shelf life charts that show the rough amount of time an MRE can last based on the temperature. Keep an eye out for outdated diagrams that no longer apply to current MRE manufacturing standards. Also, remember that fluctuations in temperature affect longevity—an MRE found in storage conditions of 75° F won’t be good for five years if it was previously in storage conditions closer to 90° F.
Unlike most other food products, MREs do not come with a printed-on expiration date. Since the storage temperature makes the shelf life fluctuate, MREs instead come with a number that indicates the time of manufacture.
It would be simple to figure out when your MRE is usable if the date was in a simple day month year format, but this is not the case. In fact, as you look over your pouch, you may find several different codes and numbers. It doesn’t help that there isn’t one standard position for the manufacture date, either.
One of the codes you may see is the lot number, which isn’t what you need to find. Instead, you need the four-digit code. On some MREs, the digits may have a letter at the end, which isn’t as crucial for indicating expiration.
Even though it’s written as one number, the manufacturer code has two parts: the first digit and the last three digits.
- The first digit represents the final number in the year of manufacture
- The last three numerals indicate the day of the year out of 365
For example, let’s say you have an MRE with the code 4170. The four would show the last number of the MRE’s manufacture year, 2014. The 170 would then apply to the 170th day of the year, June 19. Put it together, and the MRE’s manufacture date was June 19, 2014.
Likewise, 3365 would be December 31, 2013, while 0007 would be January 7, 2010. Since the average shelf life of an MRE is five years, you need to add five to the manufacturer year to get your approximate expiration date.
One thing to be wary of is that manufacture dates only indicate the last digit of the year. In the above example, an MRE with 4170 may instead be from June 19, 2004, or 1994 instead of 2014. When purchasing MREs, pay attention to other details such as bag color to get an idea of the product’s manufacture date.
If you also make several purchases of MREs, you should note what year you purchased them in so that you don’t mix up when your products are still good and when they expire due to misinterpreting the year date.
Some MREs come with an indicator of freshness on the package. The symbol changes based on the level of temperatures the MRE package has experienced to serve as an accurate readout. So long as the center circle is a lighter color than the outer ring, everything inside the package should be fresh and ready to eat.
How Long Can an MRE Last?
Because of all variables that can affect an MRE, the answer to “How long do MREs last?” isn’t as simple as determining when the average expiration date is (if you can call that process simple at all). Often, projected expiration dates are earlier than actual food spoilage, and MREs can be no different.
The standard of an MRE lasting for an average of five years comes from evaluations based on not only how long the food is still edible for, but also how it tastes over time.
Like with canned food products, an MRE’s quality of taste will decline the longer it is in storage. The nutritional value will drop, as well. However, that doesn’t mean an MRE is useless once it’s passed its estimated expiration date. Many MRE users have reported that they could eat MREs that were ten or more (in some cases, almost twenty) years older, though the taste wasn’t anything to write home about.
Considering MREs are pretty much emergency rations, you’re likely not going to be eating them for taste. The older an MRE is, the fewer vitamins and other nutritional value you can expect, but an old MRE can still provide calories to survive on if straights are dire.
Most entrees and desserts will hold up quite well over time, though some other portions may not do so well. Some of the more notable foods that deteriorate in older MREs include:
- Peanut butter
- Cheese spreads
When it comes down to it, what you’re willing to chance to eat in an older MRE is up to you. In an emergency, you may not have much choice in the matter. As a practice, it’s best to eat older MRE stock just so you don’t waste money, even if the situation doesn’t exactly call for it.
Best Storage Practices
If you want to get full use out of your MREs, you’ll want to make sure you store them well so that you can squeeze that extended lifespan out of them. Since the reinforced packaging means you don’t have to worry about most hazards, you should focus on temperature.
Since colder temperatures extend shelf-life, you may feel tempted to keep your MREs in frozen storage. However, this isn’t the best course of action. Due to the layering of the packaging, an MRE doesn’t stand up well to being frozen and refrozen. In fact, the internal layers can rupture, taking away the preservation factor.
Just keeping your MRE in the freezer doesn’t guarantee it’ll only freeze once. Power outages can cause freezers to restart and temperatures to fluctuate.
You’re best off storing your MREs in a cool, dry place. Be mindful of how seasonal temperatures may fluctuate in your storage space. To at least gain the five years of shelf life, aim to keep your MREs in an area that is regularly no hotter than 75° F.
Can Civilians Purchase Military MREs?
This is a question that pops up from time to time in prepper discussion forums.
Technically speaking, it is illegal to sell military MREs to civilians for several reasons. However, you might still find a few listings on eBay and other similar websites. It’s hard to get a hold of many MREs at a time, but getting one or two is relatively easy.
But even though the selling of military MREs is technically illegal, donating them is almost entirely unregulated (except if the meal is expired). With that said, you can ask a relief agency or go to an organization such as the Salvation Army to see if they have any supplies left.
If that’s out of your reach, then know that civilian-grade MREs can be just as effective as military MREs as long as you store them properly.
Both are made with the same packaging process and sterilization methods. Military and civilian MREs lack any dubious or toxic preservatives. They are stored using time-tested methods that don’t involve the addition of anything else other than the classic recipes.
Basic Knowledge About Purchasing the Best MREs
First of all, since we live in the digital age, it would be wise to check out a certain dealer or store’s reviews.
Advertising can sometimes be misleading, so taking the time to read through customers’ opinions should be a mandatory practice. One more place where you could theoretically buy MREs is from a collector. Just like in the case of a dealer or store, you should check out the collector’s reviews online to spot any shady practices.
Next off, it is wiser to buy an entire case of MREs, as doing so will save you the most money. Look at the expiration date and other signs of package wear and tear. Bad signs include swellness, discoloration of the can, and foul smells coming from inside.
When to Replace Your MREs
No matter what storage you use, there will be a time that you’ll have to give it up and replace your MREs. Some indicators that it’s time are:
- When the MREs have been in extreme temperatures
- If the bag is damaged or swollen
- Once it’s five years past the manufacture date (though you may stretch this limit up to ten)
- The center circle of the time-temperature indicator is no longer lighter than the outer ring
No matter what you intend to use them for, you’ll likely find yourself asking how long do MREs last. The variables of temperature and different answers can make it confusing, and the unique codes for manufacture dates don’t help ease the process.
So long as you’ve taken care of your MREs, you can count on them for at least three years, and five years is a safe bet. Many MRE users will say even ten years is a safe range, so long as you don’t mind the diminished taste. In the end, it’s a matter of figuring out what you’re willing to put up with when you eat.
If the situation is an emergency, having something to eat could be much more important to you than how it tastes. Even so, you can feel free to replace your MREs whenever you think the time is right, be that right at five years or after. Just be prepared for what ever’s in the package; you may find yourself pleasantly surprised.