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eBay sales of military rations scrutinized

"Meals, Ready to Eat" meant for military, disasters. So why are cases turning up on eBay?

Anyone who has served in the U.S. military since the early 1980s knows all about the widely reviled food rations called MREs, for "Meals, Ready to Eat."

But now those long-lasting plastic pouches, which include options such as chicken tetrazzini and cheese tortellini, have been turning up on eBay in possible violation of federal law.

A number of eBay sellers--among them, a pair of unemployed Hurricane Katrina victims--have been peddling MREs intended for disaster or military uses, government auditors reported this week.

Credit: U.S. Department of Defense
Nearly indestructible military
food rations called MREs.

In a nine-page letter to Congress (click here for PDF) this week, the Government Accountability Office revealed the results of a "snapshot" investigation it launched after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita "as a result of widespread congressional and public interest in the federal response" to the disasters.

After a one-day survey, the agency turned up eight eBay sellers pushing MREs for a profit. MREs, designed for use during "strenuous activity" or when normal food sources aren't available, typically consist of a full meal packed in a bag. A Pentagon supply center is responsible for buying cases of a dozen meals, which cost on average about $52.

There aren't any laws that "specifically" prohibit anyone from reselling the goods, the GAO report notes. But according to internal supply center regulations, they can be sold only to "a limited number of organizations, including, among others, U.S. military organizations and federally funded activities."

"Military MREs are procured by government entities using taxpayer dollars, and are intended to be consumed by individuals from authorized organizations and activities," the letter said. "Consequently, if military MREs are sold to the general public on eBay, then they are clearly not reaching their intended recipients and represent a waste of taxpayer dollars and possible criminal activity."

Two of the eight sellers who were discovered and later interviewed by the GAO said they were victims of Hurricane Katrina. They said they had picked up the supplies at local distribution centers in Louisiana but had sold them because they were jobless and needed the money. Four others were current or retired military employees, one of whom admitted to taking the rations from his base.

With the exception of the hurricane victims, the GAO referred all of their cases to the Department of Defense Inspector General for further investigation. Inspector General spokesman Gary Comerford said his office was still investigating the GAO's referrals--in addition to other pending cases involving MRE sales--and deciding what steps to take next.

The sale of MREs on eBay is hardly new. According to the GAO report, the Defense Department supply center discovered the sales were going on in 2002 and sent e-mails to sellers asking them to voluntarily stop selling the goods. Those messages "advised the sellers that military MREs are never considered surplus and that resale of MREs is strictly prohibited," the report said, and sales dropped off for a time.

But eBay has no intention of forcing its sellers to stop peddling the MREs until a real law comes along to back up such a move, company spokesman Hani Durzy said in a telephone interview Thursday.

"We're always open to having more discussions about that," Durzy said. "But until a law is passed saying you can't sell these things, we're not going to stop them from being sold on the site."