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Prepackaged meals not as plain as they once were

April 10, 2003|by KATE COLEMAN

katec@herald-mail.com

About 300,000 members of the U.S. military are far from home - and home cooking - in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

They have to eat safe food.

Feeding so many people, under less-than-convenient circumstances, is a daunting prospect.

"It's a very fluid situation," says Frank Johnson, director of Public Affairs, Defense Supply Center in Philadelphia.

Johnson's agency is responsible for contracting for the food needed by troops. The center also takes care of getting clothes - from underwear to chemical protective suits - and medical supplies from aspirin to camouflage bandages.

Who plans the menus?

The Department of Defense Combat Feeding Program at Natick, Mass., is where the research, development, engineering and field testing of all combat rations are done.

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"We have a very small program, but what we do is pretty important," says Janice Rosado, a physical scientist at the center.

The meals, the snacks, the food eaten by the troops have been tested and tasted by soldiers, and their continued feedback is welcomed. "The key to what we're doing now is that we really have the soldier involved," Rosado says.

Menus aren't planned by "Gen. Mucky-Muck or my boss or someone who works at Natick," Rosado says.

Among the feeding programs developed at the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Center is the Meal, Ready-to-Eat, (MRE) used to "sustain individuals during operations that preclude organized food service facilities ..." according to the Operational Rations of the Department of Defense brochure.

Each meal contains an entre/starch, crackers, a spread - cheese, peanut butter, jam or jelly - a dessert/snack and beverages. There is a compact chemical heater in each flexible pouch.

The meals are nutritional, approved by the Office of the Surgeon General, and each provides an average of 1,250 calories - 12 percent protein, 33 percent fat and 55 percent carbohydrates. Each weighs a pound and a half.

A Meal, Ready-to-Eat, has a shelf life of three years at 80 degrees or six months at 100 degrees.

The technology that makes the food preservation possible isn't really new, Rosado says, but huge strides in packaging have helped to improve the quality.

The MREs can be eaten cold, but each comes equipped with a flameless ration heater that can heat the meal to 100 degrees in 10 minutes.

The device, available since 1993, is more user-friendly than the Sterno-type open-flame method previously used, Rosado says.

The heaters are small, about 1/8-inch thick and the size of four saltine crackers together. Heat happens when water is added to the pouch, the result of a chemical reaction with magnesium. Steam can be seen after about 30 seconds, Rosado says.

There are 24 MRE entres, including 12 developed since the previous Gulf War. The agency tries to keep up with soldiers' changing tastes and demographic changes, Rosado says.

Chicken and Salsa is one of the new offerings. A World War II veteran told Rosado he and his contemporaries wouldn't have known what salsa was when they were soldiers more than five decades ago.

Other "ethnic" fare includes beef teriyaki, oriental chicken, burritos and enchiladas.

Other changes?

"We probably spiced it up a bit," Rosado says.

Four vegetarian meals are available, as are kosher and halal meals, for those who maintain a diet that adheres to the Jewish and Islamic religious traditions.

Some old standbys stand by: pot roast, spaghetti with meat sauce, clam chowder.

"We eat it all the time," Rosado says. "(The MREs) are very good."

Not all of the troops are eating MREs, Johnson says. Their principal use is by the 19- to 26-year-olds dug into their foxholes, he adds. As soon as an area is secured, central field feeding kitchens can be set up, he says.

Johnson spent some time with troops in Kuwait City a couple of weeks ago. Shrimp and lobster were on the menu there, he says.

The Department of Defense tries to sustain the quality of life for their soldiers. Familiar brand names are included in military rations as a way of giving the troops a "little taste of home," he says.

In a normal year, 36 million MREs are ordered and produced. This year, production was accelerated, Johnson says. An additional 49.2 million meals were ordered. So far, for next year, a "normal" order for 36 million MREs has been placed.

Is the Meal, Ready-to-Eat like mother's cooking?

"No," Johnson says.

But, he says, "It's not that bad."

And, "This will sustain you."

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