The reduced shelf life of food rations is costing the US military millions of dollars each year in wasted food. To combat this, University of Florida (UF) researchers have been working to improve the shelf life of the Army’s Meal, Ready-to-Eat (MREs) and First Strike Rations (FSRs) for front-line troops.
“These rations were originally developed with a shelf life of three years for MREs and two years for FSRs - but at 80 degrees [26.6°C],” said Jeffrey Brecht, director of the UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences’ Research Center for Food Distribution and Retailing.
“However, when they send them to the Middle East, they could be exposed to temperatures as high as 140 degrees [60°C], at which point the shelf life could be four weeks or less, instead of three years.”
Brecht led a five-year, US$6.7 million study into the longevity of Army rations. The research team also developed a temperature-monitoring system that relies on radiofrequency identification (RFID) technology for wireless information transfer, which allows for remote monitoring and prediction of remaining shelf life for rations and perishable products.
Their research showed that the RFID system can facilitate smarter decision-making at all points in the MRE supply chain, showing 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.
“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,” said Joseph Zanchi, a logistics management specialist at the Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center.
The US Defense Logistics Agency buys approximately 30 million MREs annually for all of the US armed forces. The meals are produced by several private companies.
The MREs meet the Army Surgeon General’s strict requirements for nutrition in operational rations, providing around 1300 calories. Since the soldiers’ work is so physically demanding, the requirements are quite different than those suggested for civilians. The 1300 calories generally comprises 169 g carbohydrates, 41 g protein and 50 g fat.
The food is far more varied than one might expect. From 30 days of complete menus, items included: bacon cheddar sandwiches, filled French toast; carbohydrate-enhanced applesauce; beef ravioli in meat sauce; pork sausage in cream gravy; and nut raisin mix.
“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,” said Brecht.
“Usually these things might still look good and even taste okay but they have to have certain vitamin components. We found, for example, that vitamin C was lost quite easily over time.”
While the US military has yet to implement the system, Zanchi says it may be taken up in the near future.