T-Ration and MRE Development
Major Rita Alspach, Susan D. Gagne and Alice Meyer
Quartermaster Professional Bulletin – December 1988
Development of the MRE and T-Ration combat rations
New and improved!
Everyday the phrase comes to us, reflecting changes in requirements, changes in tastes. No aspect of our military lives is exempt, and subsistence, one of the soldier’s most basic needs, is a prime example of an area where change is continual. Still, as the Army’s doctrine and force structure are modified and refined, the bottom line for feeding our troops remains simple. No matter what, meals must be nutritionally sound, available, and most importantly soldiers must eat them.
Design and development of operational rations like that of other military materiel, is
driven initially by the operational and organizational concepts to which they respond. Those concepts give a specific meaning to a ration’s essential characteristics of nutritional adequacy, acceptability, stability and military utility. Quite simply, those concepts form the standard against which a ration’s suitability for fielding is measured. Still, operational concepts don’t arise in a vacuum. In the case of the two rations which make up the subsistence basis for the Army Field Feeding System (AFFS), major advances in food processing and packaging technology have helped shape those concepts. This technology as applied to ration development of the T-Ration, arid the Meal, Ready to Eat, Individual (MRE) has also made the new AFFS viable.
Every ration developer finds out sooner or later that the ideal combat ration provides the full daily nutritional allowances in virtually no weight or space, and magically transports and prepares itself into an endless variety of delicious and familiar foods. It also retains these properties indefinitely, no matter how long or where it is stored. Nobody expects these miracles to become real, but then, the capabilities of the MRE and T-Ration may have seemed equally outlandish less than two decades ago. When one ration developer in the late 1940s proposed that food could be heat processed in flexible materials he was considered wildly visionary. By the late 1950s, things had changed considerably. Retort pouch capability was shown to be enough to warrant the formulation of the first parameters for the ration that was to become the MRE. By 1961, the concept had been sufficiently developed along the lines of organizational and operational requirements that specifics for developmental engineering were approved. The goal was to increase the acceptability and reduce the weight of the Meal, Combat, Individual (MCI) using the capabilities of the retort pouch as a foundation.
Testing had already shown that the flat configuration of the retort pouch meant that less drastic heat processing than required for rations in round metal cans was needed. This resulted in better retention of characteristic food texture and flavor. Further, whereas the MCI had been designed for only “infrequent use”, the MRE was required to pass the test of acceptability without monotony when eaten as the sole diet for seven consecutive days – a then most unusual “up-front” requirement for a combat ration!
Technical and user tests showed that the first prototype MREs did not meet these criteria. Further work was necessary to assure package integrity and to formulate acceptable products. When “Final” user/technical testing took place in 1974-75, the MRE was so significantly preferred to the MCI as to warrant the new ration’s use as a sole diet for 10 consecutive days.
The MRE was adopted as the DOD combat ration in 1975. The first buy, a large-scale production test, began in 1978, with delivery in 1981. By this time, HQDA was giving serious consideration to basing AFFS on the MRE without Tray Packs, at least for the first 60 days. The developers at Natick protested that the MRE had not been designed or tested for this. A prolonged feeding test in the early 1980s confirmed that this objection was well founded, and the MRE took its place as part of AFFS, not its only component.
The MRE not only increased combat ration acceptability and reduced package weight, making the ration easier to carry on the person, but also proved to eliminate problems of rust, corrosion and detinning. This gave the MRE a significantly longer acceptable shelf life than was obtainable with the MCI. In addition, it eliminated problems of dependency upon commercially available can sizes, making the ration easier to improve as feedback comes in from the field. The latter proved especially valuable, as feedback – principally from the foregoing prolonged feeding test in 1983 as well as larger and smaller scale tests in 1985, 1987, and 1988 – led to an extensive incremental improvement program. That program has been ongoing since 1984 and is aimed at increasing the MRE’s acceptability for prolonged consumption as part of AFFS.
Because of this MREs procured in 1988 are markedly different than earlier issues. “Welt pack” retort pouch entrees have totally replaced freeze dried entrees in all 12 menus, with nine components reformulated to meet changing tastes. Entree quantity has been increased from five to eight ounces for 10 menus. A fruit flavored beverage powder is included in all menus and liquid hot pepper sauce in some. A premoistened towelette is added to the accessory packets. These changes slightly increased the MRE’s weight, but it is still below that of the MCI.
These new MREs were tested at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, during Market Square II this past summer with enthusiastic response from the troops. Work is underway towards future incorporation of pouched white bread, additional wet-pack fruits, and pouches with better performance characteristics in extreme environments.
The other part of AFFSS is the T-Ration. Developed and fielded as individual items, its growth has been even more evolutionary than the MRE. Commercial and military developers originally saw the potential of the flat, rectangular pans that required 50% less processing time than the conventional round #10 can providing more acceptability. Items such as Lasagna, beef pot roast, and cakes could be successfully packaged in the Tray-Pack. This is not attainable in #10 cans. Due to the marketing difficulties and competing priorities, the commercial market was never fully developed.
Nevertheless the T-Rations high potential for military use was recognized.
Tray-Packs do not require refrigeration and can be prepared with minimal food service equipment and trained personnel simply by heating the containers. Because of this, they offer the possibility of providing hot “kitchen prepared” meals to large and small groups throughout the theatre of operations, even where this had previously been unfeasible.
A Letter of Agreement for AFFS food service equipment referencing both Tray-Packs and the MRE was approved in 1981. By 1983, the Armed Forces Product Evaluation Committee of the DOD Food Planning Board has approved a program of field testing to accelerate introduction of acceptable Tray-Pack foods on a line item basis into the supply system.
The initial variety of fully developed, specification Tray-Packs has increased annually. Recent experience with the new items at Market Square II demonstrated their much improved acceptability. As a result of ongoing efforts, 14 each T-Ration breakfast and dinner menus incorporating 54 different items are available for 1989 procurement. To make ration breakdown simpler, these are provided in 36-person modules which include other items required for a nutritionally complete meal. The modules also contain expendable utensils, cups, plates, etc. for consuming the meal. The 1988 modules are most notable for responding to continuing complaints about a lack of typical breakfast entrees: corned beef hash, and various types of omelets are among the new breakfast components. Development to increase the variety and acceptability of the components is continuing at a rate of five new items a year.
As the user must eat his way through the stocks already available, it may be some time before the improvements summarized above or yet to come are evident in the field. This problem is recognized and is being addressed at the highest levels in DCSLOG. In the interim, the latest version of the MRE will be provided to troops on field exercises at major training centers (such as National Training Center).
Surveillance inspection is accomplished to prevent issue of deteriorated or otherwise unsuitable rations. Use of the Unsatisfactory Material Report (UMR) is the best way to provide this feedback. Combat rations must above all be sufficiently acceptable to troops under combat stress; that is those rations must be of such quality to encourage consumption. Unless the soldier eats enough of his ration to sustain his efficiency in the field, that ration has little value. Converting processed foods into rations that meet this level of acceptability is not a simple undertaking. In accomplishing it, the developers at Natick rely on expanding their technological capabilities and receiving specific, substantiated and responsible feedback from the field. Neither is exactly easy to get. That’s part of the challenge, as well as Natick’s goal as work towards the ideal combat ration continues.
At the time this article was written in 1988:
MAJ Rita M Alspach was a Subsistence Officer, Food and Engineering Directorate, Natick RD & E Center, Natick, Ma.
Susan D. Gagne was the Project Officer of the Tray Pack Program, Food Technology Division, Natick RD & E Center, Natick Ma
Alice Meyer was a Military Requirements Analyst, Food Engineering Directorate, Natick RD & E Center, Natick, Ma.