MREs are one reliable source of food that is easy to transport, easy to prepare (if it requires any preparation at all) and generally dependable with a long shelf life. This means that they are staple inclusions and survival caches and bug-out bags for preppers.
MREs are famed (or infamous) for lasting basically forever, but even they will still go back after enough time. This begs the question:
What is the shelf life of an MRE? The typical shelf life of an MRE is around 5 years at 75° F (23° C). Ambient temperature at the storage location greatly impacts how long they last. MREs kept in temperatures of 120° F (48° C) or greater can spoil in as little as a month whereas keeping MREs in a cool location of 50° F (10° C) can prolong their lifespan to a decade or more.
You probably have plenty of questions about that assertion, and lucky for you we are here with the answers. Keep reading and you’ll learn everything you need to know about the shelf life and storage considerations for MREs.
Low Ambient Temperature is Critical for Long Life
As mentioned above the temperature of the location where the MREs stored is the primary factor that affects its shelf life. You probably already knew that MREs are packaged in heavy duty containers and are heavily processed foodstuffs.
That processing includes plenty of preservatives for extending shelf life, but they are not so packed full of chemical witchcraft that they can effectively ignore temperature considerations.
The bottom line is that your MREs shelf life will continually decrease the higher the temperature climbs. At the top end of the spectrum, say in a desert environment or the trunk of a car, your MRE might last only a single month beyond its packing date.
However, if you keep your MREs in a decidedly cool location where temperatures hover around 50°, they could last in excess of 10 years while remaining completely safe to eat. Not bad.
As you probably guessed this gradient ranges up or down with temperature increases or decreases, and MREs do not fare well at all in broiling hot or freezing temperatures, temperatures where they may run the risk of bursting.
Things also get more complicated when MREs are moved from a cool environment into a warmer environment for a length of time, but then reinterred in a cooler environment for long-term storage. How much life did they lose? Do you have any way to track it? This complicates matters.
Not Sure About the Storage Temperature?
If you acquire or otherwise come into possession of a box or crate of MRE’s with unknown provenance you might, rightly, have some concerns about the temperature in which they were stored and the subsequent safety of the MREs in front of you.
Is there any way to tell the condition of the MREs besides crossing your fingers, holding your nose and cracking that seal for some ready-made, ready-to-eat chow?
Not exactly, but your crate of MRE’s might have a monitoring device attached to the outside that can help inform your decision. Look for a small, slightly glossy burgundy red patch that may look like a bullseye. This is what is called the TTI, or ‘time-temperature indicator’.
Generally, these devices feature an inner and outer ring made of temperature sensitive material. When the inner ring, or dot, appears as dark as or darker than the outer ring you know the MREs have been in a high temperature environment for a long time and you should be cautious.
However, these devices are not foolproof and even if they are functioning correctly your MRE’s might still be safe to eat. Keep reading to learn more.
Individual Component Shelf Life May Vary!
Further complicating your quest to properly determine how long you can push your MREs in storage is the fact that the individual components in any given MRE pouch will not have the same shelf lives depending on the ingredients! Talk about a pain in the butt.
There has been no systematic research performed on this topic recently but previous experiments and studies have shown that items with a high dairy or fruit component often go bad, or experience substantial changes in taste or odor before other items.
Meats, breads, and crackers along with dry ingredients like instant coffee, tea and drink mixes usually don’t have to be worried over unless obviously compromised. However, fruit sauces and dips, cheese spreads and similar items may give up the ghost many months or even years before the rest of the items in the pouch.
Even if you think your MRE is well within the safety zone of edibility, always take care and pay attention to what your eyes, nose and taste buds are telling you when eating any component!
Making the Most of a Variable Shelf Life
You might be depressed to learn that one of your primary foodstuffs that you were counting on to go the distance for many years is likely only to attain a fraction of the shelf life you were expecting in storage. This is a bit of a bummer, but it is important to assess this limitation practically.
Compared to other foods and portable camping or survival meals, MRE’s still demonstrate excellent shelf life, even in the hottest environments. Consider the fact that if you were going on an overland trip or a lengthy camping expedition in a warm environment you wouldn’t have to worry about your MREs the entire time.
You could not expect to store them in such a temperature for years on end and then dependably eat them when some SHTF event occurs, but the same could be said for many other foods that will require eventual rotation.
One major limitation that is often seen as a deal-breaker by those who would include a MRE or two in a get-home bag or a vehicle-bound BOB is the fact that keeping the MRE in the cabin or the trunk of the vehicle is certainly going to expose it to temperatures in excess of 120° F (48° C)in all but the most frigid places, dramatically shortening it shelf life.
This is true, but remind yourself that any food item you would store in such conditions is going to have a tough, tough time remaining safe and edible.
At any rate, if you want to stay prepared in a time of elevated risk, MRE’s are still a great option, especially if you break them down and include only those components that are most suited to high heat storage.
At the very worst, you’ll just need to remember to rotate it out and make a snack or lunch out of one that has been in place for around a month.
Are Old MREs Safe to Eat?
Some preppers avow that MREs do not ever effectively spoil, and so long as they are sealed and uncompromised they will remain safe to eat. This is patently untrue, but we should ask if very old MRE’s or even those past their service life in storage are safe to eat. The answer is…
As it turns out a mountain of anecdotal evidence tells us that MRE’s that have been kept in excess of their shelf lives or stored in harsh conditions may very well remain entirely safe to eat and even totally palatable. Other times, the contents will be obviously spoiled and have undergone a noticeable change in odor, color, taste and texture.
Your author here has enjoyed meals of MREs that were over 8 years old and kept in decidedly warm conditions with no ill-effects or noticeable change in quality.
There may not be much rhyme or reason to it if you are dealing with MRE’s that are on the verge or just a little ways past their shelf life. As always, don’t eat anything that looks highly suspicious and trust your senses to inform you if the food you are about to eat is questionable.
An MRE will have a typical shelf life of around 5 years if stored in a location with an ambient temperature around 75° F. Higher temperatures will shorten the shelf life, sometimes dramatically so, and colder temperatures will extend shelf life, again often considerably.
Users should keep in mind that the shelf life of individual component items in the MRE might be dramatically longer or shorter than the overall expiry date.