MREs go mainstream

Still derided as the meals GIs love to hate, shelf-stable heat-and-serve entrees are angling for a supermarket shelf near you.

Entrees and side dishes packaged in bowls and cups add convenience to retorted foods that are migrating from military meals to supermarket shelves. Source: Sopakco Inc.

“An army moves on its stomach,” Napoleon Bonaparte famously said nearly two centuries ago, and it’s as true today as it was then. However, the focus in combat meals has shifted to delivering good taste as well as caloric quantity.

Grumbling about the quality of field rations is a time-honored tradition that survives name changes and technology advances. Meals Ready to Eat (MREs) are mockingly known in the trenches as Meals Rejected by Everybody. But the companies that make MREs are convinced they deliver a shelf-stable product that can be enjoyed by people who are not in combat or are trying to survive a natural disaster.

Three companies-Ameriqual Group LLC, the Wornick Co. and Mullins-SC-based Sopakco Inc.-process and package MREs, the retorted pouches that must maintain sterility for at least 36 months. The Defense Logistics Agency awarded supply contracts worth more than $1.6 billion in the last 24 months to those firms, according to, which tracks publicly reported Department of Defense contracts. It’s a stable market that accounts for up to 90% of each firm’s annual sales. Tapping the mainstream market is the challenge, and all three are aggressively targeting copack opportunities, with particular emphasis on the private-label segment.

Supermarket shoppers and retail buyers have much different expectations than GIs and DOD procurement officers, and the three firms have stumbled in addressing those expectations in the past. Armed with improved products and a better understanding of the retail market, they are renewing their overtures to supermarket buyers, beginning with last November’s PLMA private-label show.

Up to 14 billion meals in pouches will be filled in the US this year, according to Perry Jowers, vice president-sales & marketing at Sopakco. Pet food accounts for the vast majority, though the success of StarKist tuna in a pouch is helping change consumer perceptions. For protein served hot, the model of success is Hormel Compleats, the 90-second heat-and-eat meals that tripled sales in their first three years.

Mindful of Compleats, Sopakco is retooling its packaging plant to manufacture two- and three-stage fills for microwaveable meals in bowls, trays and kits. “We spent a year and a half developing these meals,” says Jowers. “The plate presentation is outstanding.”

Jowers was hired four years ago to develop a retail strategy. Retailers’ top expectation, he says, is 100% order fulfillment. Convenience is their customers’ top criterion, followed by cost and convenience.

Flavor loss and aroma deterioration remain the biggest challenges in microwaveable retort, and research into alternative materials and processes remains very active, says W. Scott Whiteside, associate director of the Center for Flexible Packaging at Clemson (SC) University. Oscillating retorts that rotate “almost like a rocking chair motion” and use entrained air to accelerate thermal transfer are an encouraging advancement. But the added stress can cause flexible film to crack and compromise shelf life.

Research on retort material science got a boost with the recent opening of the Cryovac Retort Laboratory at the school. Coincidentally, the lab is in the same space where Clemson scientists helped Sopakco develop its first MRE package almost 30 years ago. 

For more information:
Scott Whiteside, Clemson University, 864-656-6246,
Perry Jowers, Sopakco Inc., 843-464-7851

Did you enjoy this article? Click here to subscribe to Food Engineering Magazine.

Recent Articles by Kevin Higgins, Senior Editor

You must login or register in order to post a comment.



Image Galleries

Plant of the Year 2015

Mars Chocolate was chosen as Food Engineering’s 2015 Plant of the Year. The first new Mars candy plant in North America in 35 years is not only LEED Gold certified, it’s highly automated as well.


Burns & McDonnell project manager RJ Hope and senior project engineer Justin Hamilton discuss the distinctions between Food Safety and Food Defense as well as the implications for food manufacturers of the Food Safety Modernization Act.
More Podcasts

Food Engineering

Food Engineering April 2015 Cover

2015 April

The April 2014 issue of Food Engineering features the Plant of the Year: Mars Chocolate. The first new Mars chocolate candy plant in North America in 35 years is not only LEED Gold certified, it’s highly automated as well.

Table Of Contents Subscribe

Plant Facility/Site Issues

What issue about your current plant facility/site keeps you up the most at night?
View Results Poll Archive


Food Authentication Using Bioorganic Molecules

This text provides critical tools and data needed to augment routine food analysis and enhance food safety by aiding in the detection of counterfeit, and potentially deleterious, foods.

More Products

Clear Seas Research

Clear Seas ResearchWith access to over one million professionals and more than 60 industry-specific publications,Clear Seas Research offers relevant insights from those who know your industry best. Let us customize a market research solution that exceeds your marketing goals.


FE recent tweets

facebook_40.pngtwitter_40px.pngyoutube_40px.png linkedin_40px.pngGoogle +

Food Master

Food Engineering Food Master 2015Food Master 2015 is now available!

Where the buying process begins in the food and beverage manufacturing market. 

Visit to learn more.