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WASHINGTON — Meals, Ready to Eat, the prepackaged rations infamous among servicemembers, remain hot collectibles on the online trading site eBay.com, despite defense officials’ efforts to stop the practice.

MREs typically cost about $4.50 to produce, and are intended solely for use and distribution by members of the military, according to Defense Department rules.

But the water-activated rations are being marketed on the site as both survival gear and collector’s item, with some cases of 12 going for upward of $100.

On Friday, more than 90 unopened cases with U.S. military markings were for sale on the site, and more than 300 other listings featured individual meal packets, MRE desserts and other related foodstuffs.

In many of the listings, warnings reading “U.S. Government property — Commercial resale is unlawful” are clearly visible on the packaging.

“If they’re on eBay, they shouldn’t be,” said Gregory Kutz, managing director of the Government Accountability Office’s special investigations department. “They weren’t intended for that. In all of those cases, that’s wasted government money.”

The GAO testified before Congress about the issue this week, as part of a larger examination of abuse of relief supplies intended for Hurricane Katrina victims.

In a sampling of some of the MRE sales on eBay last October, the GAO found a few sales of the food packets by Katrina victims, a practice Kutz admitted is probably legal even if it’s not what military relief workers had in mind.

But his investigators also referred six cases to the Defense Department Inspector General’s office for possible charges of theft and misappropriation of government property. Four of those involved active-duty troops who claimed to have obtained the MREs legally.

Kutz said his investigation was only a snapshot of one day of eBay MRE sales, and does not provide any statistical evidence of a systemic problem.

In 2002, the Defense Supply Center in Philadelphia, which handles procurement of military MREs, requested the trading site voluntarily shut down all MRE sales by their sellers since the meals are “owned by the government until consumed by authorized personnel.”

GAO officials said MRE sales on the site dropped sharply after that request, but have picked up again in recent months.

Pentagon spokeswoman Lt. Col. Ellen Krenke said the Defense Criminal Investigative Service has been investigating the sales, but would say only that eBay has been “very cooperative” with those efforts.

EBay spokeswoman Catherine England said the company has no plans to halt the MRE sales.

“These are perfectly legal to own and perfectly legal to sell,” she said. “When the Defense Department approached us we asked them to show us a law that prohibited the sale of these items, and they could not do that.”

Without such a law, England said, a ban on those transactions would be unfair to sellers and buyers on the site. The only MRE sales prohibited by the company are meals with already expired use dates, for safety reasons.

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