WASHINGTON – Uncle Sam has tried to feed millions of hurricane victims this year with Meals-Ready-to-Eat (search), or MREs, only to fear that some of them have become Meals-Ready-for-eBay.
The government is looking into whether eBay (search) sellers in Gulf Coast states are trying to profit from military foodstuffs handed out for free following hurricanes Katrina (search), Rita and Wilma.
Representatives for eBay, the online auctioneer company, say it is impossible to prove that any of the meals were meant for hurricane victims. They note that MREs can be bought in camping stores and Army-Navy surplus outlets.
But at least some of the MREs advertised on the Web site are being sold from Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida (search) and other Gulf states, and are individually packaged with a disclaimer that clearly notes: "U.S. Government property — Commercial resale is unlawful."
"If it's true, that's pretty reprehensible," said Cheryl Guidry Tyiska, deputy director of the National Organization of Victim Assistance. "There are a lot of pretty hungry people down there who could use the food for free."
One seller, identified as from "Louisiana Cajun Country," described being hit "with the eye of Rita." Bidding had reached $50.99 for the seller's unopened case of MREs by Saturday.
"It was very depressing to come back and see that Rita took half our roof with her and left a lot of trees on the fence," the seller wrote. "I am still in a state of shock and a daze. It has really been a mess. I thank God for my solid gold eBay customers. Thanks for your prayers."
Bidding on other MREs, from Biloxi, Miss., to Pensacola, Fla., ranged from 99 cents to over $100. One case, from Lake Arthur, La., was being advertised as "real military issue" for $36.02. Its 12 individually wrapped meals included beef ravioli, chicken with Thai sauce and a veggie burger with barbecue sauce.
E-mails sent by The Associated Press to eBay's MRE sellers in Gulf Coast states went unanswered.
The Homeland Security Department's inspector general has asked investigators to examine the suspicious MREs on eBay, spokeswoman Tamara Faulkner said. In the past, the Pentagon has complained about MRE sales on eBay, Defense Logistics Agency spokeswoman Marcia Klein said. The agency has not decided whether to pursue the current eBay sales, though officials are considering all avenues, she said.
The Pentagon pays $86.98 for a case of MREs, or about $7.25 per meal, Klein said. The Web site for a chain of Army-Navy stories in the Washington area listed a case of 12 MREs for $96.
Told of the eBay sales, the acting director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, R. David Paulison, said he "will not tolerate any type of fraud, and we will pursue it to the fullest extent." FEMA distributed millions of MREs to hurricane victims over the past two months.
eBay spokesman Hani Durzy said the San Jose, Calif.-based company has not received any complaints from government or law enforcement officials about MRE sales in the wake of the recent storms.
Additionally, Durzy said, eBay has asked the Pentagon to cite the law that would prohibits the sale of its MREs, but has not gotten an answer.
"When we asked them to show us a law to show it is unlawful, and they were unable to do so, we said they're legal as far as we're concerned," Durzy said.
eBay does prohibit the selling of expired MREs that are not advertised as a collector's item, Durzy said. Items that would violate the law if sold through eBay are removed from the site, he said.