(Nov. 12) NATICK, Mass. — When it comes to feeding troops in combat situations, long shelf-life MREs (meals ready to eat) are standard fare, but the entity in charge of providing food to troops in Iraq is working to improve the shelf life of produce — and that includes battling shrink of up to 50% on some items.

“When it’s available, they (the cooks) want to supplement (packaged meals) with bread, dairy, fruits, salads, when possible,” said Patrick Dunne, senior adviser to the Combat Feeding group. “It’s a big morale-booster to offer some fresh food.”

Nearly everything a soldier needs is developed and tested at the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development & Engineering Center, including the food they eat. The Department of Defense’s center is overseen by the U.S. Army. One of the group’s initiatives is to extend the shelf life of fresh produce for use on U.S. Navy ships.

Not only does extending the shelf life of fresh produce lift troops’ spirits, it also saves money. The U.S. Navy loses about $3.2 million each year on wasted fresh produce, said Shubham Chandra, a contracted project engineer from Chandra Associates, Milford.

That’s out of about $25 million that was spent on buying fresh fruits and vegetables for U.S. Navy ships in a recent year, said Deborah Sisson, project officer for the Systems Equipment & Engineering Team in the Combat Feeding group.

“There is a huge benefit in extending the shelf life of fresh fruits and vegetables,” Sisson said.

“The Army has similar losses when they’re shipping forward in Iraq,” Dunne said. “Sometimes it’s close to 50% (lost). It’s a very stressful and hot environment.”

The loss is compounded by the fact that the wasted produce must also be disposed of, which can be challenging and expensive, said Peter Lavigne, a chemical engineer for the Combat Feeding group.

It’s not easy for troops to store their produce under ideal conditions, particularly when they are on board a ship, which Sisson said likely has only one chill box kept at about 37 degrees, or when they are on the frontlines in the Iraq war zone.

“We might do shelf-life studies with the ideal 60 degrees and with lower temperatures,” Dunne said. “When transported, produce may be in bags of ice.”

ETHYLENE-REDUCING DEVICES

In one project, the Combat Feeding group is working to reduce ethylene production by installing devices inside refrigeration units.

In September, Lavigne and Chandra were conducting tests, with $800 worth of bananas sitting in refrigerated containers, one with an ethylene blocking device. After about two weeks, the bananas in the standard refrigerated container were very ripe with brown spots. Its atmosphere contained 10 times more ethylene than the other refrigerator, which kept bananas bright yellow.

PACKAGING

One product the group has tested in-house and aboard the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier is Guadalupe, Calif.-based Apio Inc.’s modified-atmosphere packaging, Sisson said.

The packaging is made with the company’s BreatheWay technology, a membrane that controls the respiration of the produce inside the package. The bag’s atmosphere can change to accommodate the fluctuations in temperature experienced onboard a ship, she said.

The group focuses its research on the 12 fruits and vegetables most purchased by the Naval Supply Systems Command, including lettuce, tomatoes, bananas and bell peppers.

The packaging extends the shelf life of bananas to about 21 days, with iceberg and romaine lettuces lasting for about 36 days and broccoli staying fresh for about 45 days, Sisson said.

The technology is well-tested now, but the group is working to reduce the number of different types of packaging required, Sisson said.

The project was funded at $1.14 million through the Office of Naval Research. Chandra said the funding was received in November 2006, and the team has until May to complete its work.

A portion of the contract is with Apio. The Combat Feeding group both monitors the contract and independently tests its results, Dunne said.

The team must document that its end product not only extends shelf life, but also saves the Navy money, Dunne said. Although the technology is being funded by the Navy, the end products likely will be used in the other services, too, Sisson said. They also are likely to have applications in the commercial world, too.

Shelf-life extension also can help ensure a safer supply of fresh produce for troops, Dunne said.

“If we can get shelf life extended so that you can ship stuff forward from the continental U.S., you’re not going out and buying on the local commodity market, which they do now,” he said.

Shipping produce from the U.S. to a forward base in Iraq, for example, typically takes at least a week, Dunne said.