The Military-Food Industrial Complex

As symbols go, Tang instant orange juice is a silly one. Nonetheless, Tang was the go-to option when justifying NASA’s Apollo project and its $23.9 billion total cost. Landing a man on the moon was inspirational, but the R&D investment spawned countless advancements, like….Tang.

Of course, Project Apollo was carried out in the 1960s, before can’t-do replaced can-do as America’s federal spending mantra. Basic and applied research for military spending is exempted from criticism by budget hawks, and the Department of Defense maintains a 12-figure budget for it, but Tang Ultra and other commercial breakthroughs require cost-sharing with private industry under the Dual Use Science and Technology program—DUST for short.

Fifteen years ago, the U. S. Army Natick Soldier Center in Natick, Mass partnered with Kraft, Hormel and other food companies and equipment suppliers to nurture five promising technologies. High pressure processing is DUST’s most notable success, though the hundreds of HPP presses now churning out pasteurized foods don’t meet DoD’s objective for higher quality, shelf-stable military rations. Microwave sterilization, on the other hand, does, and microwave technology is emerging as DUST’s poster child of success.

Microwave applications are gradually expanding in food production, but microwave assisted thermal sterilization (MATS) is shaping up as a game-changer. And helping push and prod industry toward MATS are the folks at Natick, at what now is known as the Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center’s Combat Feeding Directorate.

According to team leader Lauren Oleksik, a cost analysis conducted a few years ago suggests a semi-continuous MATS line producing 150 meals a minute would operate at a cost 10%-20% less than a batch retort machine with comparable throughput. Those savings are theoretical, and the analysis was conducted before an industrial line of that scale had been built (the first will be commissioned sometime next year), but Oleksik says the analysis is driving greater commitment to the technology among suppliers of the military’s MRE kits.

Much of MATS economy derives from faster processing: an 8-oz. single-serve MRE requires about a one-hour cycle time for cooking and cooling. With MATS, process time is compressed to eight minutes. For group rations weighing 6 lb., MATS takes up to one hour, compared to a day or more with retort. Moreover, the quality impact is profound. “The benefits to group rations are huge,” she says. Field test are planned in the fall to see if soldiers agree.

Two of DoD’s three MRE suppliers are running tests on pilot-scale MATS units, and the military hopes the third—Mullins, S.C.-based Sopakco—will begin participating soon. AmeriQual in Evansville, Ind., is the most active development partner and was the first to install a pilot unit, in August 2012. The only other pilot unit in operation is at Cincinnati’s Wornick Foods, beneficiaries of a $1.7 million grant from the Ohio Department of Development. Wornick is hosting group-ration tests, and while the process is delivering commercially sterile food, packaging that can measure up to the military’s stringent requirements is still a work in progress. Several packaging companies are trying to develop pouch material without foil that can maintain sterility for three years at high temperature and humidity levels.

Commercial requirements aren’t as rigorous, and a lengthening list of meals is being validated as shelf stable, from salmon and Alfredo sauce to Cajun chicken and dumplings. Macaroni and cheese is a soldier favorite that had to be pulled from the MRE menu because of poor quality. Researchers believe MATS may pave its return to the program.

Natick also is involved in microwave development at Wright Foods, the production arm of Aseptia Technologies in Raleigh, N.C., and Industrial Microwave Systems, Harahan, La. IMS’s system would expand MRE packaging options, including foil, but it’s uncertain what the upper limits of particulate size are.

Millions of dollars and years of work already have been invested in MATS development, “and we’re getting close” to a major quality upgrade in the shelf–stable meals known as MREs—an initialization disparagingly referred to as Meals Rejected by Everybody by generations of military personnel. That’s also good news for food companies. “Interest from industry is picking up very quickly,” observes Oleksyk.

It ain’t Tang—it’s better.