New Jersey's Rutgers Food Development and Manufacturing Center working on improving packaging of military food; projects include intelligent labels, alternatives to pouches, tubes for feeding U-2 spy plane pilots

NEWARK, New Jersey , March 28, 2012 (press release) – Rutgers' Food Development and Manufacturing Center has worked for 20 years to improve U.S. Army, Marines and Air Force food

The quality of food in the military has long been a source for jokes. In the hit TV show M*A*S*H set during the Korean War, Alan Alda’s character started a riot in the mess tent to protest being served the same meal again and again. He griped, “The Geneva Convention prohibits the killing of our taste buds.”

But a lot has changed in the last few decades, with Rutgers playing an important role in making soldiers’ meals better. The Rutgers Food Development and Manufacturing Center in Piscataway has been working for 20 years to improve the quality and variety of food for the U.S. Army, Marines, and Air Force.

“Enjoying a good meal for a couple of minutes on the field can make soldiers feel good,’’ said Rieks Bruins, who oversees the Department of Defense contracts at Rutgers. “If it tastes like a home-cooked meal, that is the least we can do for them.’’

If you think bringing frozen food home from the grocery store on warm days can be difficult, try transporting meals around the globe. The Rutgers Food Development and Manufacturing Center is developing strategies for a labeling system to detect if frozen food has spoiled during transit and become unsafe to consume by the troops. The center is also tackling a redesign of meal packaging to alleviate some of the inconvenience of eating out of pouches and is developing a new tube for feeding U-2 spy plane pilots who fly 24-hour missions in pressurized suits and helmets.

Over the years Rutgers – the first university selected by the military to work on its food manufacturing – has received more than $15 million in defense contracts; it is in the third year of a seven-year contract through the Department of Defense ‘s CORANET (Combat Rations Network) program.

Rutgers received its first contract in 1988 to improve the military’s food manufacturing and used some of the funds to lease the Piscataway facility in 1992. Today, the Food Development and Manufacturing Center has two full-time staff and a secretary dedicated to military projects. It also taps into the expertise of faculty on campus, said Don Schaffner, director of Rutgers’ Center for Advanced Food Technology which oversees the facility.

“Having dedicated staff in combination with being able to leverage the expertise of our faculty, puts us in a position where it was hard for other universities to deliver what we were required to deliver for these contracts,’’ Schaffner said.

Rutgers currently shares the grants with a few other universities but continues to receive the majority of the $2 million in funding made available each year.

At the moment, Bruins is waiting for the Natick Soldier Systems Center in Massachusetts to evaluate a prototype of a new feeding tube for spy plane pilots. The current aluminum tubes, which attach to a hole in the pilot’s helmet, sometimes leak and are made outside the country.

The goal is to develop a tube “that we can make domestically, is more puncture resistant, and is studier than the aluminum containers,’’ Bruins said.

The center’s inspiration comes from an unexpected place: “We came up with a concept that is very similar to the spouted pouch used in baby food,’’ said Bruins, who worked at General Foods Corp. before coming to Rutgers.

Mukund Karwe, chair of the university’s food science department, is working with the center to develop a sticker that will track temperatures and time and warn if frozen food goes bad during transport to the troops. The label is meant to replace the guesswork that can lead to good food getting tossed out.

Rutgers is also working on a better system to detect air in food packaging, which can shorten shelf life. The current test involves opening a tray with air while it’s under water and catching the air bubble. But that means throwing the food out afterward. Bruins has teamed up with professors Thomas Boucher and E. A. Elsayed from the industrial engineering department to adapt an existing machine for a new testing method.

The new test would apply pressure, while preserving the contents. The machine is currently used to test the strength of the seals for these meals, which need to survive being dropped from a plane and have a shelf life of at least three years.

But the work at Rutgers that soldiers may be the most grateful for, is packaging developed in Piscataway that made it possible to double the variety of food offered in meals ready to eat (MREs) from 12 to 24 items.

The packaging replaced pouches that were only capable of holding stews and other food that could be pumped into it. The bottom of the updated package is shaped like a tray and can hold steak, burritos, lasagna, hamburgers, and other items placed inside. Bruins said half of the rations the military currently serves its soldiers are in these trays.

“Soldiers didn’t like to eat stew every day, they wanted more variety in the menus,’’ Bruins said.

Schaffner said center staff and university faculty are dedicated to providing soldiers with one of the few comforts from home they can have in the field: high-quality food.

“I am especially gratified to see that we are doing research of such value to both the military and eventually to the public,” Schaffner said. “As these technological advances get rolled out, they will benefit the whole food industry as well.”

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