WASHINGTON -- GIs fed up with the fixings on the Saudi front: Hang tough. Beef sukiyaki, Italian-style lasagna and breast of chicken Acapulco are arriving at a military mess hall near you.
The Pentagon -- in its first contract ever with a commercial food producer -- has ordered a $44.6 million supply of "Top Shelf" entrees from Geo. A. Hormel & Co. to help liven mealtimes for Operation Desert Shield troops.
Under the deal, the Minnesota-based company is to provide 10.8 million of the packaged meals, which come in 12 varieties -- from chili tosukiyaki to sweet and sour chicken. What is provided to the Pentagon will be the same as what is available on supermarket shelves.
"You get pretty sick and tired of eating the same menus day after day after day," said Lorraine Netzko, spokeswoman for the Defense Personnel Supply Center in Philadelphia.
Until recently, troops in Saudi Arabia have been served mainly T-rations -- trays of food such as hamburger and beans packed in steel cans and boiled -- or Meals Ready to Eat (MREs), individually wrapped plastic pouches of dehydrated food with a shelf life of three to six years. These foods are produced solely for the Pentagon.
Neither T-rations nor MREs reportedly have done much to excite GI palates. Fed by word that Saudi, Syrian and Egyptian forces are receiving fresh food rations, grumbling about the quality and monotony of U.S. military fare has increased.
Pentagon spokesmen say that sending fresh food to U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf is logistically impossible, but they say the "Top Shelf" entrees, 4 million of which were airlifted to Saudi Arabia late last month, should help supplement and add variety to regular military rations.
The military also recently purchased smaller quantities of commercial "brand name" soups, puddings and candy, which will soon beon their way to Saudi Arabia, said Ms. Netzko. "These are things that you and I could go out to the grocery store and buy," she said.
Besides spicing up the menus, the new commercial products also should help ensure that an ample supply of the non-perishable military rations remains on hand. Since August, demand for the MREs has increased sixfold -- and Pentagon officials fear that the three main MRE suppliers may not be able to boost output enough to meet the new demands.
"They [military planners] don't want to use up their war reserves," said Ms. Netzko.
Hormel spokeswoman Meri Harris said that the company filled the initial part of the Pentagon's order "right out of our inventory stock."
Normally, buyers of "Top Shelf" products, which come in ready-to-serve plastic pouches, heat the products in microwave ovens, she said, but GIs will be able to cook their meals in boiling water for seven to nine minutes.