It was Groundhog Day in one of those waiting rooms where time stands still and your olfactory system is bombarded by an unsettling smell of unknown origin. There was no amount of new posts on my phone that would relieve the tedium, or the apprehension of the bureaucratic furball that awaited me when my name was finally called. The only diversion, emanated from amongst the rows of packed seats; two Senior Airmen discussing meals ready to eat.
It was the typical, “Back in Nam,” or in their case, “back in the ‘Deid,” type of dialogue that tends to be the go-to time waster. The reason it was remarkable, was because the tone of the conversation was 100 percent serious though the topic incredibly comical.
“Man, when I got deployed, my bunkmate scared the hell out of me,” said one to the other. “He told me that ‘if you eat an MRE everyday for two weeks straight—you’ll die; If not because of the ten years they have been sitting in the box, then from the inability for my body to process all the calories.’”
As the two went on for about 20 minutes, people couldn’t help but start to recall their personal tales of the infamous “meal in a bag.” Finally, the two were separated by a personnelist repeating their names, like that of Ben Stein in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”.
As the day wore on, I couldn’t get the conversation off of my mind. Maybe people really don’t know what’s in the MRE. Maybe you can die from eating a decade old MRE. Maybe your body can’t digest a continuous diet of packaged food. What did I know?
That’s when I knew It was time to assemble a crew and head to the Combat Feeding Directorate of the U.S. Army Soldier Research and Development center in Natick, Massachusetts—the place where scientists, nutritionists, and a bunch of other smart people test and develop each and every meal.
The first stop was to meet with Julie Smith, Natick’s Combat Feeding Directorate’s senior food technologist and registered dietitian. Just to get the big stuff out of the way, we asked her the important question first.
So, Julie, can you die from eating an MRE for two weeks straight?
No, you can never die from eating only MREs no matter how many days in a row. MREs are approved by the Office of the Surgeon General to be consumed for 21 days straight as sole source of consumption with no negative nutritional deficits.
What is the shelf life on these things?
The shelf life for the MRE is six months at 100 degrees (Fahrenheit) and three years at 80 degrees (Fahrenheit).
Is it possible to get an MRE that has been sitting in a box for 10 years?
If proper inventory management is conducted, no Warfighter should see a ration that is older than three years, six months.
How many different menu options are there?
There are currently 24 different “menus” or varieties of MREs. And, there are also meals religiously certified like Kosher or Halal, which are available when requested.
Are there any secret ways to “MacGyver” an MRE into something that can be used in combat? I was told that you can take the heating element, put it in a water bottle, add the Tabasco and make a pepper explosion that will temporarily disorient an enemy.
(Laughing) Not to my knowledge, but I’ve heard of some pretty creative stories regarding troops reengineering the MRE.
What is the reasoning behind the crazy names of the candy like pan-coated fruit discs and pan-coated chocolate discs? Why just not say Skittles and M&Ms?
According to Federal Acquisition Regulations, the government is restricted from specifying a brand name for any ration component in order to ensure maximum competition.
After learning people can’t die from eating 14 days of grilled jalapeno pepper jack beef patty entrées. Julie suggested the next stop; across the hall and into the kitchen of the research lab to speak with Jill Bates.
Jill is a CFD food technologist who conducts sensory evaluations and provides rations support.
Sensory Evaluations, that’s a fancy title–what does that mean?
Sensory Science utilizes all 5 senses to evaluate a food product. We call all of our panelists, Trained Technical Sensory panelists. It is essentially the technical name for a taste-tester.
Taste-tester—how amazing is that?
Everyone always says that we have such a cool job because we get to taste, test, and evaluate different food items, every day, as part of our job. However, since it is “work,” we think of it as just that. The testing feels nothing like eating a snack or a meal, it is simply evaluating a product.
A funny story related to this is that we are so used to evaluating food products and describing the odor and flavor characteristics in detail, that we find ourselves over analyzing and critiquing all food products that we eat, even while dining out at a restaurant. I can’t eat anything until I’ve smelled it first, which apparently is not a common thing that everyone does while dining out.
So taste is actually a factor in the development of the products?
Most definitely; all of our panelists are trained to distinguish between all five basic tastes: sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami (a Japanese term for savory). They are also able to describe what type of product it is and to what intensity, slight moderate or strong.
All products developed are tested throughout the process for the attributes of appearance, odor, flavor, texture and overall quality. Panelists then provide feedback on all attributes to the food technologist and product developer.
Where the heck are these manufactured?
The Combat Feeding directorate does not manufacture any MRE items, we conduct all of the research and development to create menus, develop new items, and conduct shelf-life studies on current commercial products. The government has contracts with three large companies called MRE assemblers that produce, assemble and ship out the completed cases of MREs according to the government’s specifications and each of the 24 MRE menus.
Are they product approved by the USDA?
All items produced under contracts for the MRE are inspected in the production plants by USDA inspectors who inspect the products for quality and to ensure they meet all specified requirements from packaging to net weight, and any required analytical tests (for protein, fat and salt content) as well as odor, flavor and texture. We also conduct further testing and sensory evaluation here on production lots submitted for evaluation to ensure they meet all requirements and are comparable to our established product standard for each item.
Do you actually ask the people eating the MRE what they want?
Of course; we conduct field evaluations, typically annually, where we go out into the field and test a set of new items alongside existing MRE menus. During this time the warfighters rate the items.
After each field evaluation, we take the lowest rated current items and replace them with the highest rated new items tested during the field evaluation. This increases the variety and acceptability of the MRE annually.
Have you ever gotten a bad batch of MRE’s?
As stated before, since they are inspected in plant by USDA inspectors, there should never be a “bad batch” of MRE’s.
Now that Airmen can rest assured knowing that there is actually some science applied to their development, some of the MRE war stories can be set straight. Some others, like how the pound cake makes you constipated and the dehydrated fruit cocktail does the opposite, the cheese spread is an effective repellant for Ft. Benning fire ants and the ham slice “jelly” can serve double duty as a firearm lubricant, will have to be examined another day.