Explore and validate, in collaboration with the food industry and academia, advanced thermal processing methods that would provide high quality foods with utmost convenience for consumption. By taking advantage of a high-temperature short-time process, sensory and nutritional attributes of freshly prepared foods can be retained and the product rendered shelf stable for a reasonable period.
Using aseptic- or pre-packaged methods, the products are packaged in environmentally friendly and lightweight polymeric containers that are easy to open and logistically smart for storage. A combination of several such methods can further increase the throughput of the products and reduce the processing cost, and most important, produce foods with the highest quality. A two-year effort is anticipated.
For years, US Army Natick Soldier Center (NSC) has exploited numerous innovative thermal processing methods by validating the commercial sterility of the products with both microbiological and chemical methods, demonstrating the sensory quality with both consumer and technical panelists, and joining the market potential study with industrial and academic consortia. NSC also acted as a facilitator in assisting industry to acquire regulatory approval of the novel processing methods. Two key methods are ohmic heating and microwave sterilization. In contrast to the conventional low-temperature long-time retort processing, ohmic heating simultaneously heats fluid and particulate in pumpable foods, whereas microwave heating heats whole muscle foods from core to the surface. Both methods provide far less heat damage to the food products due to relatively short processing time. These methods can produce new varieties of entree items that are difficult to produce by conventional methods. At this moment, the demand for such shelf stable, high quality foods is more in the military than in the civilian market due to unique military ration storage requirements. It is critical for DoD to take the lead in encouraging and facilitating industrial efforts to acquire regulatory approval of such methods.</p>
The military has a strong interest in improving the quality of current MREs and also in developing a large industrial base for high quality shelf-stable meals. This would reduce the cost of military rations that are currently produced under contract at considerable expense and would provide surge capability for flexible logistics for future battlefield requirements. General application of this new technology in the food industry for the retail market will decrease the need of maintaining a large MRE inventory in the military service systems. The potential US market for high quality microwavable shelf-stable ready meals is estimated to be several billion dollars. But this market can only be realized by using new thermal processing technologies to reduce thermal degradation. Microwave sterilization technology offers the potential to produce much more palatable MREs for the military and higher quality shelf-stable foods for the retail market than conventional thermal processing methods at competitive costs. Advanced Thermal Processing Technologies integrate previous S&T successes and investigate/ integrate packaging concepts, menu development, and process validation of microwave sterilization and radio frequency sterilization for producing a new generation of not previously available, high quality, shelf stable ration components.</p>