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Natick Center Strives to Improve Combat Ration Quality, Taste

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Sept. 26, 2012 – The Meal, Ready to Eat could go the way of the World War II-era C-ration and spinoffs of it that the MRE replaced almost 30 years ago. 

Click photo for screen-resolution image
Soldiers at Fort Carson, Colo., meet with Jeannette Kennedy, left, and Wendy Johnson, right, from the Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center at Natick, Mass., to provide their input about items in combat rations and to try out new prototype menu items. U.S. Army photo by David Kamm
  

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

Jeannette Kennedy and her team at the Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center here relentlessly pursue the tastier, more universally acceptable MRE. But all the while, she said, they’re looking beyond the horizon to consider what’s next.

“We are going to be looking at the whole concept of the MRE, and whether that is going to meet future needs,” Kennedy, senior food technologist for the MRE improvement program, told American Forces Press Service.

The current MRE menu offers 24 menu choices, four of them vegetarian. A typical MRE ration includes an entrée, bread or cracker item, peanut butter or cheese spread, snack or dessert item and goodies such as hot sauce, beverage mixes and chewing gum.

“We are going back and evaluating whether that is the way [troops] are going to want to be feeding in the future,” Kennedy said. “Is that what they want in a meal? Is that how they are going to be eating? So we are going back and looking at the whole concept.”

That forward focus is part of a continuous product improvement program at the Defense Department’s Combat Feeding Directorate, said Michael Stepien, the directorate’s program marketing analyst. It’s an ongoing quest to raise the bar for combat rations in terms of both selection and quality.

“It’s all about making [combat rations] as universally acceptable as possible,” Stepien said. “The bottom line is, you can develop a great product, but if [service members] aren’t eating it, they are not getting the nutrition they need.”

The MRE has morphed considerably since its initial introduction in 1983, with new selections inspired by changing troop palates and technological breakthroughs. Meanwhile, the changing operating environment led to the introduction of the Unitized Group Ration and the First Strike Ration for conventional forces conducting dismounted patrols over extended periods.

Regardless of the type of combat ration, their developers are committed to ensuring they’re delivering the best product possible, Stepien said. To be certain they’re getting it right, they go to the experts: the soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines they’re striving to please.

Every year, a team of product developers, food scientists, nutritionists and consumer researchers travel to field training exercises to hear firsthand what troops think of current combat rations referred to as the “control group” and some of the most promising prototype entrees. They visited two sites this year, two in 2011, five in 2010, three in 2009, and four in 2008.

During a recent visit to Fort Stewart, Ga., the evaluation team dished up new and prototype MRE rations and collected feedback from troops who rated them on a scale of 1 to 9 based on flavor, texture, odor, color and other characteristics. Another team recently visited Fort Sill, Okla., to get similar reviews of Unified Group Ration menus.

“We’re looking to gather data from all sorts of different active military populations, geographically and by service, to make sure we are getting feedback and improving based on information from a wide variety,” Kennedy said.

Based on that input, the developers make recommendations to the Joint Service Operational Ration Forum, which meets annually to approve additions and deletions from the combat ration menus.

As a result, several new selections will be added to the MRE menu next year: a jalapeno pepper-jack beef patty served with white wheat snack bread, ketchup and yellow mustard; beef taco filling; an oatmeal chocolate chunk cookie; chocolate-filled pound cake; barbecue-flavored almonds; fruit-flavored hard candy; dairy shakes and lemon iced tea.

Gone will be items that troops assigned lower ratings: beef pot roast with vegetables, sloppy joe filling and cornbread stuffing.

In 2014, production will start on the barbecued shredded beef and vegetarian taco pasta entrees, replacing chicken fajitas and vegetable lasagna. Seasoned black beans will replace refried beans. Potato cheddar soup will be dropped as barbecued corn nuts, pretzel nibblers, toaster pastries, chocolate fudge and a chipotle tortilla are introduced.

Meanwhile, the Natick team continues to explore new MRE menu options. Kennedy called a tomato-based pizza sauce with pepperoni, mushroom and green-pepper pieces, to be paired with Italian bread sticks, a cheese spread, garlic powder and red-pepper flakes, particularly promising. 

Unified Group Rations will get fresh tastes, too. Thai chicken curry, meatballs and pasta and southwest chicken chili are to be added as new entrees during the next two years. They’ll replace chicken stir fry, golden barbecue turkey riblets and chicken tamales.

Meg-Emlyn Aylward, a food technologist who manages the unitized group ration improvement program, and her team continue to seek out new breakfast items as they improve on existing ones. “We want to make sure that we’re appealing to a large population,” she said.

The popular First Strike Rations will expand from three to nine menu offerings, to include the new Mexican-style beef wrap with cheese and honey barbecue chicken pocket sandwich.

The expansion is the first since the First Strike Ration’s debut in 2008, based on popular demand. “The First Strike Ration gets extremely high rating[s] from warfighters,” said Stepien.

“Warfighters love it,” he said. “They love the fact that it is lightweight. They love the fact that it has less volume than the MREs. They love the fact that it is easy to eat on the move, out of hand, with no preparation required.”

The new First Strike menus will include 40 new components, including some of the most popular items in the MRE, said Julie Smith, a senior food technologist who oversees product improvement for the assault and survival rations.

She’s already laying plans to use those nine menus as controls while conducting field tests next spring to solicit opinions on four new prototype menus. Among those selections will be a maple sausage wrap that could serve as a breakfast, lunch or dinner food.

“The idea is to continuously improve,” Smith said. “We want everything to have high scores, but to ensure that, we need to gather that data to make sure the items are still doing well, and that the warfighter still finds those items acceptable.” 

Warfighter satisfaction is the goal behind everything the DOD Combat Feeding Directorate does, Smith said. “That’s what really drives it for us, to provide them the very best.”

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Related Sites:
Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center

Click photo for screen-resolution imageTwo soldiers examine components of a First Strike Ration during an early evaluation of the product at Fort Bliss, Texas. Based on popular demand, the Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center will soon introduce new First Strike Ration menus. Courtesy photo by Sarah Underhill  
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