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MREs: Meals Really Edible?

July 01, 1998|CHARLES PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The guy at the convention booth was delivering a fascinating pitch about the new technology for detecting bio-aerosols. So what are bio-aerosols? "Germ warfare," he explained quietly.

Well. Whew. Glad to hear somebody's on the job. Please keep up the work.

There was a lot of advanced military technology on display at the Assn. of the United States Army convention at the Pasadena Convention Center on Thursday. Some of the most interesting examples weren't in the exhibit hall, though, but up in Room 204, where a new generation of Meals Ready to Eat, or MREs, was on display.

Jerry Darsch, the young director of the Army's Natick Labs, was eager to show off the new dishes. He refers to soldiers as "our customers."

"We did the market research with them," he said. "We went out and suited up at 0300 hours to find out what they wanted, the whole thing."

The Natick Labs--officially the Sustainability Directorate of the U.S. Army Natick Research, Development and Engineering Center ("Natick" is pronounced "naytick," by the way)--is where the Army works on how it's going to feed, clothe and otherwise sustain its troops in the field. And ever since its MREs got known as Meals Rejected by Everyone during the Gulf War, the labs in Natick, Mass., have been trying to upgrade them.

To be fair, making an MRE is not like packing a picnic lunch. It has to satisfy precise nutritional requirements. It has to be acceptable to the widest imaginable range of tastes. Above all, you have to be able to store it in all sorts of weather for up to three years and then drop it from a helicopter.

MREs are the latest development in the short history of combat rations. Until this century, troops simply left the battle lines at nightfall and ate in camp, but in World War I, they lived for months on end in the trenches, where a traditional mess service was impossible. In the brief time the U.S. was involved in that war, the Quartermaster Corps had to devise a canned combat ration of corned beef and hard bread.

The Subsistence Command, established in 1936, invented the C rations that would fuel combat soldiers in World War II. These were also basically a canned meat product and a canned biscuit, plus instant coffee and some chocolate bars designed not to melt at temperatures under 120 degrees.

But the flavor was notoriously bad, and it was awkward to carry cans of food into battle, so 1945 saw the introduction of K rations, in which only the meat and cheese were canned. But there was a lot of criticism of K ration flavor too. In some places, the lemonade powder was used for scrubbing floors (at which it was said to be excellent). Still, the K ration, with modifications, hung on all the way through the Vietnam War.

In 1983, the Natick Labs developed MREs. The perishable elements are put up in heavy-duty plastic pouches, rather than cans, making them lighter and less bulky, so an MRE has room not just for a main dish and a starch but an amazing variety of additional things: say, peanut butter, crackers, a cookie, a pack of candy, fruit drink mix, instant coffee, nondairy creamer, chewing gum, toilet paper, a tiny bottle of Tabasco sauce and even a moist towelette.

The first new MRE wrinkle after Desert Storm was a way to heat the food. Hot food tastes better than lukewarm, but it has always been a rarity in combat. To use the new Flameless Ration Heater, or FRH, you insert a food pouch into a plastic sleeve and add a few tablespoons of water. It takes the food up to 160 degrees in about 12 minutes. "The byproduct of the chemical reaction is totally harmless," said Darsch. "It's basically Milk of Magnesia."

One of the problems with MREs in the Gulf War was that many rations had been held longer than they should have and the flavor had gone bad. Another was simply lack of variety. There were 12 menus--luxurious by pre-MRE standards, but soldiers tired of them after five or six weeks, so the number is being boosted to 24.

Some of the new items being shown off in Pasadena are already available, such as the very tasty smoky franks--imagine smoky, spicy Vienna sausages--which have been in production since 1994. The black bean and rice burrito (not bad, though you'd never mistake the tortilla for the real thing) and the lemon-poppyseed pound cake (terrific) will show up next year. The peculiar but tasty catfish--in something like thin enchilada masa, rather than a crunchy cornmeal breading--is scheduled for 2000. On the whole, everything seems at least comparable to canned food.

There's notably more ethnic food in MREs than before. "Today's soldier is more sophisticated," said Darsch, nodding. "Pasta is good, for instance. Pasta goes over very well."

And there's definitely more health food, such as the Hooah Bar, a sort of military sports bar ("hooah" means "can do," among many other things). A couple of entrees are vegetarian. Soldiers with religious dietary restrictions, such as Jews and Muslims, can also get special meals from their chaplains.

In an amazingly confident move, the Army is making MREs available for sale at PXs. Some of the new developments will also show up on the civilian market sooner or later, such as a sustained-release fructose drink and a shelf-stable barbecue chicken sandwich.

"Our customers asked us, 'Could you put a pocket sandwich in an MRE?' " said Darsch. Amazingly, the Army and its private-industry partners could--it's as good as any frozen barbecue chicken pocket sandwich, despite staggering technical problems. One day you'll see it in a vending machine, but with Nabisco or Sara Lee on the label instead of a military code.

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