Researchers’ Work Helps U.S. Military Deliver Fresher MREs

Could save military millions of dollars

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Newswise — GAINESVILLE, Fla. – University of Florida researcher Jeffrey Brecht is leading a team of scientists working to eliminate waste and streamline the process of distributing the U.S. Army’s legendary Meal, Ready-to-Eat (MREs).

In a five-year, $6.7 million study, Brecht, the director of the UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences’ Research Center for Food Distribution and Retailing, and colleagues tested the longevity of MREs, along with First Strike Rations (FSRs) for front-line troops, including special forces.

“These rations were originally developed with a shelf life of three years for MREs and two years for FSRs - but at 80 degrees,” Brecht explained. “However, when they send them to the Middle East, they could be exposed to temperatures as high as 140 degrees, at which point the shelf life could be 4 weeks or less, instead of the three years.”

That degradation, Brecht said, costs the U.S. military millions of dollars a year in lost rations.

They also developed a temperature-monitoring system that relies on radio frequency identification (RFID) technology for wireless information transfer, which allows for remote monitoring and prediction of remaining shelf life for rations and perishable products.

The research shows that the RFID system can facilitate smarter decision-making at all points in the MRE supply chain in terms of which rations should be discarded, which should be shipped first, and where rations can be shipped with confidence that quality won’t suffer when they arrive.

Former UF professor Jean Pierre Emond and Ismail Uysal, an Assistant Professor at the University of South Florida who was a postdoctoral associate at UF at the start of the project, helped develop the RFID system, while fellow researcher and UF professor Charlie Sims provided the sensory data to develop the shelf-life prediction model, and verified that the system works.

“This research provides a system to insure that military rations delivered to our soldiers around the world will have good quality,” Sims said. “This system will enable the military to predict the quality or shelf-life left in a food after being stored under any condition.”

Former UF Assistant Professor Cecilia Nunes, now on the faculty at the University of South Florida, measured the physical and chemical changes in the rations at the different storage temperatures, including the color and texture, the water content, and the taste-related and nutritional composition.

Extending the shelf life and how to best handle fresh fruits and vegetables were also tested.

These aren’t your granddad’s combat rations, eaten in the villages around Saigon. Out of 30 days of complete menus, the menu items tested include: bacon cheddar sandwiches, filled french toast, honey BBQ sandwiches, Italian-style sandwiches, carbohydrate-enhanced applesauce, beef ravioli in meat sauce, nut raisin mix, chipotle snack bread, and pork sausage in cream gravy.

Each year, the U.S. Army’s Combat Feeding Directorate at the Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center in Massachusetts develops, tests, and evaluates new items for all operational rations designed to optimize the cognitive and physical performance of warfighters, while addressing the military’s unique constraints. The Defense Logistics Agency buys approximately 30 million MREs annually for all of the U.S. armed forces, said Joseph Zanchi, a logistics management specialist at the center. The meals are produced by several private companies.

“These efforts, when effectively integrated within the supply chain, can help ensure that warfighters continue to receive high quality, highly acceptable rations with minimal product losses,” Zanchi said.

He added that the MREs meet the Army Surgeon General's strict requirements for nutrition in operational rations, providing about 1,300 calories, composed of 169 grams of carbohydrates, 41 grams of protein, and 50 grams of fat – the requirements are much different from those suggested for civilians.

“It’s like feeding athletes because these soldiers have really hard, physical demands put on them and they have to get the right diet – not only the calories but the vitamins and other nutrition,” Brecht said. “Usually these things might still look good and even taste OK but they have to have certain vitamin components. We found, for example, that vitamin C was lost quite easily over time.”

The U.S. military hasn’t yet implemented the UF/IFAS system, but Zanchi said it could happen in the future. A report on the study was issued in December. To see it, go to: https://www.dropbox.com/l/H6Q3Z2EQk9r0dYdYAt0lyb


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