The MRE was adopted as the Department of Defense combat ration in 1975. A large-scale production test began in 1978 with delivery in 1981. MRE I (1981) was the first date of pack.
In 1983, a field evaluation was conducted with the 25th Infantry Division for 34 days. They ate noting but MREs three times a day. Although troops rated the ration as acceptable, consumption was low – only about 60% of the calories provided were consumed.
Another test in 1986 with the same division resulted in increased consumption and acceptance.
Based on these tests, a significant number of changes were made to MREs starting with the 1988 MREs (MRE XVIII). 9 of the 12 entrees were replaced with new ones and the entree size was changed from 5oz. to 8oz. Commercial candies were added to 4 menus, hot sauce was added to 4 menus, and cold beverage bases were added to all 12 menus.
After further field testing and as a result of early feedback from Operation Desert Storm, even more changes were made starting with MRE X: commercial freeze-dried coffee replaced the old mil-spec spray-dried coffee, hot sauce was added to all 12 menus, wet pack fruit replaced dehydrated fruits, and commercial candy was included in 4 more menus (for a total of 8).
During Operation Desert Storm, MREs were eaten by troops for far longer than they were originally intended. Originally intended for 10 days or less, many troops ate them for 60+ days. As a result, three changes were quickly made to supplement the MREs and enhance their acceptability: shelf-stable bread in an MRE pouch was developed, a high-heat-stable chocolate bar was developed that wouldn’t melt in the desert heat (this had been attempted before but the bar had a waxy taste and wasn’t widely accepted), and flameless ration heaters were developed as a quick and easy method for troops to heat their entrees.
Over the next few years, more changes took place. A joint panel recommended replacing at least two menus a year to improve acceptability, various entrees were change, and various other parts (deserts, tea/coffee, etc.) were changed.
In the first quarter of 1994, three major changes were field tested: 1) commercial-like graphics were added (studies showed commercial packaging increased comsumption and acceptance), 2) MRE bags and components were made easier to open, and 3) biogradable spoons were added to make MREs more environmentally friendly (the spoons were also longer which made them easier to get to the food). These changes will probably be implemented in MRE XVII (I think they changed in 1996 instead).
In 1994, they began to study the effects of increasing the number of available menus from 12 to 18 to 24 to overcome menu monotony and to allow MREs to be used for longer periods of time.
In 1996, the menu count was increased to 16. Then in 1997, the menu count was further increased to 20. Finally, in 1998, the menu count was increased to 24, where it remains today (2003).
Since MRE XIII (1993 Date-of-Pack [DOP]), 70 new items have been approved as MRE improvements. Fourteen of the least acceptable items were replaced, and the number of menus was increased from 12 to 24. In addition, four vegetarian meals are now included.
Click here to see the summary page of what changes occurred each year in MRE development. You can also visit this site to learn more about MREs.