Amazon, perhaps anticipating nuclear war or an impending apocalypse, is exploring technology that will allow it to produce complete meals that can be stored for long periods of time without refrigeration. In other words, Amazon is taking a page from the rations U.S. soldiers have known for decades: meals, ready to eat — commonly known as MREs.
The online retailer, which recently announced its plan to purchase Whole Foods Markets, is gearing up to dominate the food space, and could begin offering “ready-to-eat dishes such as beef stew and a vegetable frittata as soon as next year,” according to Reuters.
Because the meals have long shelf-lives at room temperature, they could be offered at prices significantly lower than the cost of take-out. MREs made by other companies and sold online cost between $4 and $7 per meal; Amazon currently offers MREs from third party sellers.
But now Amazon is looking to partner with Denver-based 915 Labs, which is using technology developed at Washington State University known as microwave assisted thermal sterilization (MATS). It’s slightly more sophisticated than traditional MRE processing. Each meal is cooked, packaged, sealed, and then heated under water using a microwave. Unlike the MREs that the military distributes, 915 Labs tells Reuters that their more gentle processing kills bacteria but allows the “dishes [to] retain their natural flavor and texture.” They are shelf-stable for up to a year. The machines 915 developed to process food can produce 1,800 meals per hour.
"They obviously see that this [as] a potential disruptor," Greg Spragg, a former Wal-Mart Stores Inc. executive who now heads a startup working with MATS technology, told Reuters. "They will test these products with their consumers, and get a sense of where they would go."
Reuters suspects the Amazon MREs would work well with AmazonFresh, the company’s grocery delivery model, and fits in with the retailer’s apparent plot to own portions of the foodservice business in the U.S., including grocery and restaurant delivery. The company also recently filed for a trademark to develop its own meal kit.
Amazon has been hiring food engineers and developers to work with 915 Labs on the new products since earlier this year, but these MATS dishes have not yet received U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval. Assuming they do, what’s still unclear is whether consumers even want MREs (jokes about mushroom clouds aside).
"I get why new food processing systems that increase shelf life may be good for Amazon," Bentley Hall, CEO of grocery delivery service Good Eggs told Reuters. "I struggle to see how this solution addresses an actual consumer want or need better than fresh, prepared meals."