Troops always complain about food, but maybe a little less in recent years. The Defense Department has been on a 20-year effort to improve the field rations known as MREs, or meals ready-to-eat.
“Even as far back as Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm, that was really when the MRE improvement program came to fruition,” said Robert Trottier, team leader for combat rations at the DoD’s Combat Feeding Directorate in Natick, Mass. “We thought we put out a good product. But the reality was that we didn’t spend a lot of effort improving it, and it wasn’t getting consumed.”
In 1991, Trottier’s boss, Gerry Darsch, was called down to the Pentagon to meet with Gen. Colin Powell. When Darsch entered the room, Powell told him not to sit down. Instead, he was showed Darsch an MRE and told him to fix it.
“That was what started our continuous improvement projects,” Trottier told The Federal Drive with Tom Temin on Thursday. “On an annual basis, we replace items in the MRE, in fact all of our rations, based on what’s currently popular with warfighters.”
Changing the menu
According to Trottier, a team of food scientists, nutritionists, microbiologists, chemists, plastic engineers and packaging scientists are all focused on the impact that rations have on a warfighter’s mood, morale and performance.
“We have based our lab capabilities on improving the family of combat rations,” he said. This includes advanced labs covering food processing, chemistry and food packaging, as well as a sensory and consumer testing lab where hundreds of products are evaluated annually.
“Rations have to be shelf stable for up to three years at 80 degrees Fahrenheit, that net requirement alone differentiates us from a lot of the commercial industry,” Trottier said. Approximately 70 percent of the items in an MRE are of commercial origin, provided they meet the CFD’s shelf-life, weight, volume and nutritional requirements.
In the last 10 years, as troops were deployed in Iraq, CFD has added 100 items to the MRE and removed an equivalent number that are no longer popular or acceptable.
“We make sure that the current version of the MRE and all of our rations are as up-to-date as possible in terms of products soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines want to eat,” he said.
Warfighters who don’t like the taste of the MREs typically turn to what they can obtain from home or in their theater of operation, which means that they may not be receiving as nutritionally balanced a meal as an MRE provides. Taste of the food and familiarity of the selection are important considerations when designing the contents of the MRE.
“We are certainly meeting the Army regulations for the minimum recommended daily intakes of all the necessary macro and micro nutrients that any warfighter needs,” Trottier said. “If they’re not eating rations, they’re not getting the proper nutrition.”
Serving a diverse palate
One of the challenges that CFD faces as it comes up with new MRE entrees is ensuring that they appeal to the varied palate of a diverse fighting force. In 2012, warfighters can expect to find new entrees in their MREs, such as jalapeno beef patties, beef taco filling, Mexican chicken stew, chicken and pesto pasta with feta cheese and tomato, ratatouille, garlic mashed potatoes and instant Irish cream coffee.
Ultimately, it’s the warfighter who decides what entrees will be included in the MRE.
“We designed our programs to be very warfighter-centric,” Trottier said. “We take our items on a yearly basis out to warfighters and we test them. We find out what they like in the current MREs. We find out what they don’t like in the current MREs. And we offer them, maybe, half a dozen to a dozen new potential entrees of which they are the deciders in terms of what’s going to go in.”
Once the warfighter testing is done and Trottier and his colleagues determine that the products meet all of their requirements, they bring their new menus to a joint service board once a year for approval.
“Once that approval is given, that’s what we transition into the field,” he said.