Every prepper worries about keeping enough food on hand to go the distance during an emergency, be it long-term or short-term. One popular option is the MRE, or “meal, ready-to-eat”.
Conveniently packed, durable, nutritious and possessed of an amazing shelf life, some folks believe that MREs will last all the way to the apocalypse and then some. Despite this reputation and the impressive amount of processing that goes into their creation, MREs can and do spoil.
How long will MREs typically last? The shelf life is around 3 – 5 years, highly variable based on the storage temperature. The average shelf life of a modern MRE is around 5 years if kept at around 75 °F.
Very cold temperatures will extend the shelf life, with 10 years being expected if kept at 50 °F. Hot temperatures will degrade shelf life substantially, and temperatures of around 120 °F can spoil an MRE in as little as a month.
Temperature is a major factor when it comes to the shelf life of your MRE but it is not the whole story. Keep reading to learn more about shelf life and food safety pertaining to MREs.
Ambient Temperature Greatly Affects Shelf Life
There is simply no other way around it. Temperature is likely the single biggest factor that will affect the shelf life of your MRE’s assuming the packaging is not compromised or defective.
The only rule of thumb you need to remember is that high temperatures will seriously degrade shelf stability while low temperatures will greatly extend it. On that note, it is possible to place your MRE in an environment that is entirely too hot or too cold, and ruin it.
Aside from those extremes, though, you should know that your MRE will enjoy an excellent shelf life at temperatures around 70 °F or 75 °F (21 °C to 24 °C). As mentioned above, it’ll last for around 5 years, give or take a little bit.
If you can keep your MRE in conditions substantially cooler than that you’ll be doing even better, with temperatures around 50° F netting you a decade of safe, nearly certain storage. This might not be easy to maintain for most folks and most climates, however, barring refrigeration.
At the other end, as the temperature climbs over 75 °F, your shelf life will shrink and shrink. Temperatures over 100 °F that are sustained will dramatically degrade the shelf life of your MRE, typically giving you only a few months of safe storage, with as little as a month when temperatures hover around 120 °F.
And of course life does not happen in a laboratory. If you keep your MRE’s stored in a place where ambient air temperatures can affect them, they will experience temperature swings as day turns tonight and seasons pass. This makes running the calculus on your MRE’s remaining shelf life basically impossible.
Consult the TTI
Despite the complications attendant with real life storage considerations, you do have a tool that can help you figure out whether or not your MREs have been stored at too high a temperature for too long.
Modern MRE’s are typically shipped by the box or case load, and on the outside of this case you will find a small time-temperature indicator, or TTI. This compact decal is shaped like a flat disc with a dot or inner circle nested within a larger outer circle.
Made of temperature sensitive material, you should be on the lookout whenever the color of the two circles matches, specifically when the inner circle is as dark as or darker than the outer circle.
When this occurs, it does not necessarily mean your MRE’s are not safe to eat; only that they have been exposed to significant temperatures and you should be cautious when opening.
At any rate, there is yet more to consider when it comes to storing MRE’s safely, and determining whether or not they have gone bad.
Not All Dishes Will Last As Long
Most preppers are already familiar with the idea that every food, from the most basic staple to the most intricate pre-prepared dish, will have a very variable shelf life based on its ingredients. MRE’s are no different, and the individual items that make up a packaged MRE all have differing longevity. This is yet another wrinkle in the MRE shelf life question.
Although some folks have attempted a comprehensive study of which components from which brand and which generation of MRE will last the longest or go bad the quickest, the basic rule of thumb is that items with a high dairy content or high fruit content will spoil much quicker the items that are mostly meat or grains.
Also, accessory inclusions like hot sauces, drink mixes, instant coffee, and so forth effectively do not go bad.
If you crack open an MRE and everything seems good until you get to the applesauce or the cheese spread there is a reason for that, as these two items in particular are notorious for spoiling faster than any other in the package.
Now, as always, pay attention to what your nose and eyes have to say! One of your first indicators that something is not right is a substantial change in appearance, odor or texture.
Practical Considerations for MRE Shelf Life
That’s probably sounds like major rain on your parade if you have banked heavily on MRE’s as the first, best and last option for your survival food.
As it turns out, unless they are kept quite cool they won’t last decades and decades, even a single decade, much of the time. You need to abandon ship on MREs, and start over? Are they barely better than freezer TV dinners when it comes to shelf life?
Hold your horses, don’t get too upset. First, context is everything when it comes to shelf life. You probably don’t think twice about rotating other items in your survival pantry and you shouldn’t think twice about rotating MREs, although they’re dramatic expense on a per calorie basis means you definitely need to get your money’s worth out of them.
If you want to keep a large supply of MRE’s as part of a bigger survival stash of food, that is fine; you’ll just need to take pains to keep them very cool if you want to store them and forget about them.
Otherwise, rotate them normally, and make sure you eat them or use them in some other way before they go bad.
For folks who are keeping MRE’s around as meal options included in a bug-out bag, go-bag or some other kit where they are likely to be exposed to high temperatures or significant temperature swings you will simply be rotating them out more often.
If you keep an MRE or two in your car as part of a roadside emergency kit simply bust those bad boys out and make snacks or a picnic lunch out of them at the end of a month or two.
You can maximize your MREs lifespan and hostile conditions by removing individual items from the heavy outer pouch and then selecting meals and components which minimize dairy and fruit content as discussed above.
MREs are renowned for a long shelf life, and so long as you keep them stored in a location with temperatures going no higher than 75 °F you should get about 5 years shelf life out of them.
Universally, higher temperatures will significantly degrade the shelf life of an MRE while lower temperatures will greatly extend it.
If you have MREs that you rely on as part of an overall readiness plan make sure you rotate them like you would any other food according to the typical temperatures in which they are stored.
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