Matt Springer has been giving presentations around San Francisco about home earthquake preparedness since 2008 (for more information about the presentation, go to his earthquake preparedness website). This blog is devoted to posts ranging from technical "how-to" articles to more philosophical "should-you" topics. New articles will be posted at most about once a month, so people who subscribe won't be subjected to lots of e-mail.

Monday, October 7, 2013

MRE shelf-life follow-up: Ever wonder what a 14-year-old MRE tastes like?

Several days ago, I ate an MRE with an expiration date of 2005, and lived to tell about it.  Actually, it was pretty decent, Chili and Macaroni “Menu #4” from Mil-Spec packaged in 1999, not any worse in flavor or texture than what one would expect from a typical canned version from the grocery store.  Considering its age, it was practically gourmet!

For those of you who have not been following this blog since May of 2011, I wrote an article about MREs (meals ready to eat; military/emergency rations that are popular in emergency kits) in which I reported that while MREs have long had charts from suppliers showing shelf lives as long as 10 years depending on ambient room storage temperature, the official estimated shelf lives had recently been made considerably shorter.  However, I also reported that this was based not on “going bad” but instead on subjective taster opinions about when the meals were no longer at their best flavor and texture, and that there was every reason to think that they would be edible and not harmful for years to come.  There are reports that most of the components (notably not peanut butter, cheese spread, or applesauce) were just fine at the end of the shelf life, and I myself had tried eating one at the end of the 7-year recommended shelf life period corresponding to the ~70-75 degree F temperature of my closet (in 2005) and had found it perfectly fine, if admittedly not finely perfect.  I therefore kept that batch for back-up (more on this in a future post) and purchased a new batch with a recommended shelf life for my closet temperature of 2005-2012.

Well, here we are at the end of that new cycle, a little late actually in 2013, but I figured it was ok based on the experience with the 2005 expiration meal at the end of its recommended life.  I purchased a new batch (this will be 2013-2020), planning to keep the remaining 2005-2012 MREs as backup, and found again that a new meal that I tried was better than the expired 2005-2012 MRE, but the expired one was not bad.  So naturally, I had to find out what had happened to the ones with 2005 expiration that I had been keeping as a back-up; would they have truly been edible if I had had to resort to eating them in the present?  I opened up each packet and sniffed first without encountering any foul smells.  Then I heated up the entrĂ©e and gingerly touched my tongue to it, so far so good.  Took a small bite, no problems noted at all.  Ate the meal, mmm mmm good.  And there you have it, the 2005 “expired” meal, which was packaged in 1999, was about as good in 2013 as it probably would have been in 2005.

To be exact, the chili and macaroni was fine, not up to restaurant or homemade standards but certainly worthy of canned lunch food.  The crackers were ok, with just the SLIGHTEST hint of “old cracker” taste but really not bad.  The chocolate covered cookie was delicious.  However, the packet of strawberry jam was darker than I imagine it was initially, and had a slight old smell to it; it probably would not have been bad for the health but I opted to not eat it.  Of course, I scoffed at the instant coffee packet.  (Starbucks, bless their hearts, are like cockroaches in a way; they will still be on every corner after the earthquake or nuclear blast.)

A few days later, I tried another one from that old batch, beef stew.  I squeezed it out of its package into a bowl (I didn’t bother using the heater packet and just microwaved it instead) and got a little worried because it did not look very appetizing.  I microwaved it and stirred it up, and it actually looked a lot better, but I was still skeptical at the tiny size of the pieces of beef and potato.  However, when I ate it, I was pleasantly surprised; despite the small size of the meat pieces, they were nice and meaty with good texture, not tough, not mushy; the potatoes held up; a little on the salty side but not a deal breaker—again, as good as I would expect from a can, and this was 14 years old.  A third meal, with an entree of chicken breast strips with chunky salsa, was also quite good despite the chicken being a little dense; although the applesauce was dark as expected, looking and smelling like a cut apple that had been left out too long; I tossed the applesauce.

This is consistent with an article that came out recently in the San Francisco Chronicle about “expiration” and “best by” dates of food frequently being far earlier than necessary, resulting in the disposal of massive amounts of good food by US consumers.  It’s also in line with what I recently reported in this blog about the FDA stating that expiration dates on bottled water were not really valid and there was not actually a reason to dump out store-bought emergency water jugs every couple of years.

In fact, I’m starting to get a little nervous because here I am telling you about how its ok to drink expired water and eat expired food...let’s just frankly remind everyone that I don’t have a higher truth and can’t make official statements that something is safe; I cannot guarantee your health and would not want to be held legally responsible for telling you do ignore an expiration date.  I can, however, tell you that the FDA has said exactly that for the water, and that the expiration dates for the MREs have best-by estimates that are not based on health, but rather on taste and texture.  You should use your natural senses and good judgment to determine if something in an old MRE is clearly bad (smells odd, green fuzzy things swimming in it, populations of microscopic Whos yelling “we’re HERE,” etc.) as you would with any long-term stored food.

Want to know when your MRE was packaged?  Each MRE component is date coded with a series of numbers.  The numbers include the production year, and the day produced in addition to a lot number extension.  Look for a number stamped on the package that looks like 9077M1 2 1FD2 (in the case of my old MRE that I tried).  The last groups of numbers refer to lot number so you can disregard them, and the packaging date is encoded in the first numbers, 9077M1, just in the first four digits.  The “9” in 9077M1 stands for the last digit of the year, which is presumably 1999 since I purchased it in 2000 (one bought today with a number like that would presumably be from 2009 but you need to have some rough idea of how old it is to be sure).  Next look for the three subsequent numbers.  In mine, 077 represents the 77th day of the year, or March 18th.  So my old MRE that I tried, with a stamped number of 9077M1 2 1FD2, was presumably packaged on the 77th day of 1999, which is March 18, 1999.

So now I have three different batches of MREs, one current, one recently “expired” as a back-up, and one legacy group of MREs that probably had siblings that fed US troops in Kosovo.  That last group is still ok but I don’t know how much longer it will be that way, so I don’t plan on keeping that whole batch around for another cycle (more on this in a future post).  I will just eat the remaining old MREs occasionally over the next few weeks to not waste the money (although the sodium content of these varies widely, from 10% to 64% of the daily suggested amounts in the ones at which I looked, and some have partially hydrogenated oils; save daily consumption for emergencies).  However, I think I’ll stash one or two of them away to test in 2020, out of morbid curiosity, and I’ll report back...I guess that means I’m committing to this blog for at least 7 more years!

12 comments:

  1. MRE (Meal Ready-to-Eat) Facts https://youtu.be/Kc7Mk-OyYV4

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    1. I tested out the youtube link myself; it's for real and is an interesting little informational video about MREs. Thanks for posting.

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  2. I'm finding that my meals dated 6255 (August 2006) taste ok; but the heater element is not efficient. The bottom of the meal gets warm, at best. But the top end remains unheated, even when the meal is lying flat. I've tossed several meals away while experimenting with the enclosed heater, and have to heat, unbagged and in a separate container.

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    1. Thanks for that comment, which raises an interesting point that I hadn't considered. The food is fine but what about the heater? If the commenter sees this reply, I'm curious to know if you have observed more efficient results with heaters in new MREs. In my own experience, the heaters have been better than twirling a stick trying to make a spark, but not as good as a microwave oven, and I haven't really taken note of how variable they were or if I noticed better results with new heaters than with old ones.

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    2. About the heaters no, I haven't bought any MREs recently. I bought these meals a while ago. After a bit more research today, which I should have done before, I learn that the square heaters in military-issue MREs only last 5 years. A lesson learned. I'll make note to get back to you with results if and when I replenish my supplies and try newer heaters. Thanks!

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    3. Good, thanks; this is a useful addition to the article. Two thoughts about the issue: First, as with the rest of the matter of MRE shelf life, "expiration" dates can be determined in some cases as a date before which optimal quality hasn't deteriorated, even if reasonable quality will remain for years after that. I'm note sure if that applies here, but assuming that the reactive agents in the chemical packet lose potency over time rather than a sudden loss of reactivity, I'd imagine that they would give slowly declining efficiency over time after that date. The second thought is that to be useful for military purposes, which can involve people living on MREs daily for a long time, everything should be good enough to ensure good quality of life for the personnel. For emergency use, which would presumably involve a few days of home use or weeks in extreme post-disaster scenarios, lukewarm meals are probably not going to pose a problem for people, so the degradation of the heaters over time is probably not cause to toss otherwise good MREs.

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  3. Ate a 7 year old mre and fell with a fever, and no matter what im throwin em in the can. Itd be cruel to send this to those in need of emergency food.

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    1. I'm sorry to hear about your illness, and of course would not want to belittle that or give advice that could lead people to be ill. However, it's important to note that 7 years is within the normal expected shelf life of MREs; even if you take the most conservative estimates and plan on a 5 year "best by" date, I do not think that disease causing germs will be infectious after 7 years that were not already infectious after 5 years. Therefore, I suspect that you either had a bad MRE that would have made you sick even if eaten before its best-by date, or that you coincidentally got sick for some other reason after you ate the MRE.

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  4. Just had coffee and whitener from 1996 and it was fine. Tasted just as bad as it did back when I was drinking it in the British army. 2008 Berry Combo Fruit Grains were also fine. Dec 2004 Meatballs for lunch. Will.D.

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  5. I have received 4 cases from SoPakCo, and I was able to see one the 4 digit numbers... 9428, which from what I have gathered, Sept 5 2009... today is April 7 2017... what do you think I should do? Keep them or toss them?? Have not opened any of them. Thank you!!!

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    1. Chris, I think you may be looking at the wrong number. 9428 doesn't make sense using the system described above, which would say that it was packaged in 2009 on the four-hundred twenty-eighth day of the year, which is hard to do on planet earth. Either you are dealing with a Martian MRE, or that is not the number to look at, or they were using a different number system but I'll be distressed if that turns out to be the case since then my article is wrong :-) It would also be odd for a company to supply MREs in the 8th year of their shelf life, in any event. Are there any other numbers on the outer package or perhaps one of the inner packages? (I know, not ideal to have to open one of them but you could tape it shut again; it's the inner packages that need to remain sealed.)

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  6. Just ate a 12 year old mre, still kickin.....

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