Look for Pepperoni and Barbecue Sandwiches in MREs Soon
By Curt Biberdorf
Special to American Forces Press Service
NATICK, Mass., May. 14, 2002 Pepperoni and barbecue chicken pocket sandwiches have been approved for the Meal, Ready-to-Eat.
The shelf-stable sandwiches were first developed by the Department of Defense Combat Feeding Program at the Army Soldier Systems Center here in the mid-1990s as a ration to enhance soldier mobility. They require no refrigeration or freezing, or utensils or heat source before eating, although they can be warmed with a flameless ration heater.
"We've combined shelf-stable bread that now supplements the MRE with meat into a lightweight, identifiable, eat-out-of-hand food," said project officer Dan Nattress.
Shelf-stable sandwiches are comparable in size, calories and appearance to "Hot Pocket" brand sandwiches found in grocery stores. The major difference is in processing that allows the food to meet the Combat Feeding Program's minimum shelf life of three years at 80 degrees Fahrenheit or six months at 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
Military rations are commonly stabilized through thermal processing in pouches, but heat tends to destroy the flavor and texture of the sandwiches, said project officer Michelle Richardson.
The new sandwiches are developed using "intermediate moisture technology." They're preserved by controlling water activity and acidity levels. Humectants, substances that promote water retention, reduce water activity and the amount available for bacteria growth. The pH or acid levels are controlled by choosing low-acid ingredients or incorporating natural acids into the product.
The amount of oxygen that comes into contact with the food is also controlled by including oxygen scavenger packets. The sandwiches are packaged in triple-laminate pouches to prevent the passage of water and oxygen, both necessary for the growth of yeast mold and bacteria.
"The combination of meat with the bread with differing water activities and pHs makes both safety and acceptability a concern," Richardson said. The components have different water activity characteristics that need to complement each other. If the water activity of the meat is too high, for instance, the result could be soggy bread, she said.
She said the sandwiches passed soldiers' taste tests and meet Food and Drug Administration requirements for food safety.
The sandwiches are being further developed and commercialized under an agreement with a company in Raleigh, N.C. Partnering can reduce overall production costs by opening commercial sales opportunities that create an economy of scale, Nattress said.
Other varieties under consideration are a pizza pocket with Italian sausage and pepperoni slices in a tomato sauce, sliced beef in a barbecue sauce, tuna or chicken salad, ham and cheese, and peanut butter and jelly.
The same technology is being applied to a new program in combat breakfast foods.
"The number of breakfast items available to the warfighter is very limited and not highly acceptable," Richardson said, who's leading the research. "The investigation of intercomponent films and coatings may allow the use of ingredients previously impossible due to moisture or fat migration."
Some concepts that Richardson has proposed are cream cheese- filled bagels with and without fruit fillings, sausage and cheese biscuits, breakfast burritos with bacon and eggs in a tortilla wrap, and breakfast pizza. Prototypes are scheduled to be ready this year with production planned for 2004.
(Curt Biberdorf works for the Soldier Systems Center Public Affairs Office, Natick, Mass.)