Food Engineering

MREs go mainstream

January 1, 2009
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 Militaryindustrialcomplex.com, 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, wwhtsd@clemson.edu
Perry Jowers, Sopakco Inc., 843-464-7851