WASHINGTON -- Troops in the field about to grab a meal, ready to eat combat ration might want to choose the "Jamaican pork chop," the "pasta with alfredo sauce" or the "beef with mushrooms."
These entrees will soon be gone from the MRE inventory, to be replaced by new dishes that food technologists at the U.S. Army Soldier Systems Center at Natick, Mass., say will be a bigger hit with the troops.
New this year to the MRE menu board are pot roast with vegetables, barbecue pork ribs and vegetable manicotti. New side dishes are hearty New England clam chowder and a carbohydrate-fortified applesauce.
And troops with a sweet tooth will soon be able to bite into two new cookies, one a vanilla waffle sandwich and the other, chocolate mint; peanut butter and crispy versions of M&M candies; and almond poppy seed and pumpkin pound cakes.
Janice Rosado, a food technologist for the Department of Defense combat feeding program at Natick, said the changes are designed to maintain variety while keeping pace with warfighters' taste preferences.
"People like what's new, and we get a lot of requests for more ethnic foods and for vegetarian meals," she said.
In recent years, new MRE entrees have reflected those preferences, with several Italian, Mexican and Oriental selections offered. New in 2004 will be an entrée Rosado is convinced will be a big hit: Cajun rice with sausage. In addition, four of the 24 MRE entrees are meatless, she said.
That doesn't mean that some of the perennial favorites, like spaghetti and beef stew, are going to go by the wayside, Rosado said. Both have remained on the MRE menu list since the pouched combat rations were first widely introduced in the early 1980s.
"We try to keep a combination of items that remain popular along with new items that keep the selection interesting," she said.
During the past decade, Rosado said Natick engineers have introduced sweeping changes to MREs. They've added a flameless heater to all meals so they no longer have to be eaten cold or soaked in tubs of hot water, doubled the number of entrees so troops deployed for extended periods don't grow weary of limited selections, and replaced most dried fruits with "wet pack" fruits similar to those found in a can at the local grocery store. They've also added a wide range of commercial items like candy bars and Tabasco sauce that Rosado said service members are familiar with and like.
But most importantly, Rosado said, Natick took the lessons from Operation Desert Storm to extend the shelf life of MREs, particularly when they're stored in harsh environments.
Previous shelf-life tests ensured that all MREs had at least a three-year shelf life when stored at 80 degrees Fahrenheit or below. When the temperature increased to 100 degrees, the shelf life plummeted to six months, Rosado explained.
But during the 1991 Gulf War, pallets of MREs often sat for months at a time in shipping containers that baked under the scorching Southwest Asian sun. While the intense heat didn't make the entrees harmful to eat, Rosado acknowledged that it did alter the color and texture somewhat, making them less appetizing to the troops.
Now, MREs undergo far more intensive shelf-life testing. Rosado said test items that don't survive several weeks of storage at 125 degrees are automatically pulled from consideration.
In addition to scorching heat and frigid cold, Natick testers expose potential MREs to impact tests to ensure they don't break open when airdropped, and nutrition tests to make sure they meet prescribed requirements.
But no matter how well MRE items perform in these tests, Rosado said they never enter the military inventory until they survive one of the toughest tests of all: the troop taste test. Natick food scientists take all potential new MRE selections to the field, where warfighters conducting military exercises get the final say in whether they'll make the cut.
Based on successful field tests, Rosado said Natick plans to introduce three new entrees next year: Cajun rice with sausage; a veggie griller in barbecue sauce; and a jalapeño-laced Mexican macaroni and cheese.
Also new in 2004 will be a Kreamsicle cookie that tastes just like the ice cream bar served up from truck, carrot cake (but without the cream cheese icing), and red hot candies.
And because MREs generally take about two-and-a-half years to develop, test and get approved, Rosado said she already knows what's on the radar screen as far out as 2005.
In 2005, she said to look for chicken fajitas with tortillas, a cheese omelet with vegetables, penne with spicy tomato sauce, and sloppy joes. Also to be introduced are hash browns with bacon and a blueberry-cherry cobbler that's chock-full of fruit.