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 entrée 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.
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!