Military Subsistence Program Historical Background

To sustain troops under the operational demands and logistical constraints of modern warfare, military subsistence must possess characteristics markedly distinct from those of food products successful in the commercial marketplace. No program of research and development to diagnose and meet peculiarly military subsistence problems existed, or was even envisioned, until the then Office of the Quartermaster General (OQMG) established the Subsistence Research Laboratory at the Chicago Quartermaster Depot on July 24, 1936—less than six years before Pearl Harbor.

The World War I experience, without people knowledgeable in subsistence and unaided by systematic scientific investigation of military requirements, left procurement officials often dependent on almost miraculous improvisations by individuals within the food industry and the army. The troops were fed and the war won but the food margin was frequently so narrow that OQMG feared it could easily go the other way in the future if not addressed in time. The OQMG established the QM Subsistence School in 1919 toward generating a cadre of military experts in subsistence procurement, inspection, processing, transportation, and storage. Partly because of budgetary problems, the school was deactivated on June 30,1936.

The new laboratory became heir to the school's research equipment, primarily a reasonably adequate kitchen, and was authorized $300 for supplies and equipment. It began operations with a staff of three: an officer-in-charge and two civilians who had worked at the school. Its official objectives were "to test foods and new style packaging of foods; prepare drafts of proposed specifications or reedit those which have become obsolete; to conduct studies of various reserve and emergency rations or components thereof; to prepare information bulletins and maintain liaison with other Government agencies." Its resources during the prewar period increased less rapidly than did its activities. By late 1941 its staff numbered 13. It had developed, field tested, and standardized the original C Ration, completed development of the D Ration, started work on the K Ration, essentially completed development of three-way frozen boneless beef, resumed the school's instructional functions, revised existing and prepared new specifications, and examined a melange of commercial products for potential military usefulness. This was done with no real advance knowledge, except possibly intuition, of the characteristics required for military suitability in the kind of conflict World War II proved to be. The type of food analyses the laboratory could then perform—mainly cooking tests, taste tests, and visual examination—was at best rough. It made a beginning in storage testing; laboratory members believed rations should be sufficiently palatable, as well as nutritional, to be eaten after long and adverse storage, but the implications of that belief were yet to be realized.

When World War II began there was virtually no experience in designing food or food packages for the conditions soon to be encountered overseas. A few separate agencies and individuals had done some research but without any attempt to translate results into food products meeting still-unknown military requirements. The food industry was concentrating on inexpensive and palatable foods that were stable enough to meet domestic distribution conditions. The small, poorly equipped, understaffed Subsistence Research Laboratory began its task of converting the immense industry to producing foods of a completely different type, despite labor and material shortages, as quickly as possible. Having no means of knowing precisely what was needed overseas, the laboratory began to formulate functional requirements as specifically as possible in the light of the best information it could obtain and to develop standard tests. Improvisation and trial and error were frequent in the evolution of products and rations. In general, the laboratory began to act as the hitherto missing military link between research groups and production groups—with a high degree of cooperation from both. That its work became effective was due largely to the notable cooperation it received from the industry.

For nearly three and a half years of the war, the laboratory concentrated on incorporating the most modern production procedures into specifications, enabling them to be put into operation in plants throughout the country. In 1944 it began to emphasize and accomplish development of new and better products and more acceptable rations. With the experience it had already gained, some overseas reports, increased facilities and additional technical personnel, it had a far clearer idea of what was needed and the means of obtaining it. Industry had also acquired experience and cooperation became more effective. With ability to define the broad types of military operation in terms of the subsistence problems distinguishing them, the laboratory could give clearer direction to its work by recog nizing its goal as the development of food products and rations possessing the nutrition, stability, acceptability and utility properties required under the different operational conditions. By the end of the war it was recognized that science and technology would have to be expanded to meet known requirements more efficiently and to effectively respond to new demands.

Besides dealing directly with hundreds of food and food-packaging concerns and academic research groups, the laboratory had both formal and informal relationships with many government agencies, among them the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Federal Food and Drug Administration, the Fish and Wildlife Service of the Department of the Interior, the other military services, and the Office of the Army Surgeon General. In recognition of its actual accomplishments and operations, it was redesignated the Quartermaster Food and Container Institute for the Armed Forces in 1946, and its mission, previously conducted without a specific charter, formalized. The new mission statement expanded relationships with other government agencies and added other military, federal, national, and international technical organizations. In 1950, as a result of Department of Defense (DOD) assignment to the army of primary responsibility for research and development of food, the institute was designated as the implementing agency for all DOD components, Following relocation of the institute to Natick, 1962-1963, DOD updated and expanded this responsibility in 1968 and added food service equipment.

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