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Last Updated: Wednesday, 7 September 2005, 14:46 GMT 15:46 UK
What's in emergency ration packs?
1 French onion soup; 2 Hot chocolate; 3 Savoury biscuits; 4 Milk chocolate; 5 Tissues; 6 Cooked rice; 7 Boiled sweets; 8 Fruit biscuits; 9 Chewing gum; 10 Chicken pate; 11 Orange drink powder; 12 Curried lamb; 13 Fruit dumplings in custard; 14 Bacon and beans; 15 Condiments; 16 Hot pepper sauce

By Jonathan Duffy
BBC News Magazine

They're standard-issue to British squaddies in Iraq, but now half a million Army ration packs are being sent to victims in the hurricane disaster zone. What will they make of them? We sample the contents.

The food is a long way from the gumbo, crawfish and Cajun-inspired cuisine Louisiana is renowned for, but to those caught up in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina it could be a lifesaver.

The UK is flying half a million military ration packs to the disaster zone in the southern states of the United States.

The high-calorie packs are standard issue for the British Armed Forces on operations and, it's claimed, contain enough food to last one person 24 hours.

They include some typically British dishes, such as corned beef hash, Lancashire hotpot and fruit dumplings in custard, as well as some more adventurous options like vegetable tikka masala and spicy vegetable rigatoni.

Camping stove
A stove comes as standard issue
Each pack contains up to 4,000 calories - the recommended daily consumption is 2,000 for women and 2,500 for men - and is "designed to feed a young man aged 18 to 30 who has been involved in active operational duty," says Brian Sheehan of the Defence Logistics Organisation.

"You're looking at them getting a massive energy burst."

The calorific bulk of the packs could even tide someone over for a couple of days, he says.

With stories of desperation and hunger among the displaced victims of the catastrophe, the British ration packs will no doubt be warmly welcomed.

The airlift also marks the first large non-military distribution of the packs, according to the Ministry of Defence.

Taste test

And while sustenance is the highest priority in such desperate circumstances, the military's backroom boys are more than a little proud of what they're shipping stateside.

Army rations recently underwent their first major rethink since the 1960s, to reflect the more sophisticated eating habits of today's squaddie. Some of the old freeze-dried dishes have also been replaced with more palatably moist alternatives.

The crackers are akin to cardboard
Opening my sample pack, supplied to the media by the MoD, I was struck by the sheer amount of food that had been squeezed into the unassuming 20x11x19cm brown box.

Breakfast comes in the form of bacon and beans, sealed in a sterile foil pouch, while lunch is a slightly more delicate affair - a tin of chicken and herb pate and a sachet of cardboardy crackers.

There are snacks aplenty to keep the sugar levels up, and calorie intake high. These include dried-fruit biscuits, boiled sweets and oatmeal blocks. Drinks include a vegetable stock drink, hot chocolate and an orange drink - all powdered.

In devising the new packs, research had apparently found that branded items familiar at home were a significant morale boost to troops. Quite what the hurricane refugees will make of Yorkie bars - complete with "Not for civvies" slogan - remains to be seen, but the inclusion of that most American of confectionaries, chewing gum, will doubtless be appreciated.

Dinner time

Much of the pack is given over the main meal of the day - a three-course affair which, in this case, kicks off with a sachet of French onion Cuppa Soup, before moving on to boil in the bag curried lamb and cooked Basmati rice and, finally, fruit dumplings in custard.

Jonathan tucks in
I desist from emptying in the hot pepper sauce, illustrated with a skull and crossbones, and tuck in
A quick glance at the ingredients reveals the curry really is mutton dressed as lamb, but no worries, the other ingredients sound more than passable - natural yoghurt, coriander, ginger puree.

I tip it and the rice into a saucepan on top of my camping stove - packs sent out to the US include a mini-stove and water-proof matches - and within a few minutes the smell of a hearty meal is wafting my way. I desist from emptying in the sachet of hot pepper sauce, illustrated with a skull and crossbones, and tuck in.

While army cooks won't be quaking in their military-issue boots faced with these rations, the result is more than passable and would put some instant supermarket snacks to shame. The curry is moist and while it cannot shed its processed taste, the meat has a reassuring solid texture.

Even the military concede that these ration packs are a stopgap, and no substitute for a properly cooked hot meal. But to the many thousands of dispersed hurricane exiles, a British Army ration pack could be the most welcome sight in a good many days.

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

Ah... Rat-Packs - how I miss them! Really I do - great food on a gopping winter's day, whilst tabbing across the Pennines. Word of advice - use the boil-in-the-bag to boil in the bag! You then use the hot water for your drink, and you don't have to wash out the pan. In a pinch, you can stuff the bag in your pocket and eat on the run (which happens more than is funny).
Jason Dyer, Vancouver, Canada

Having gone through 3 Hurricanes last year that left my family without electricity, running water and a local food supply for 11 days last year, I can tell you that the anything is a bonus when you get hungry enough. My children and I had a ration of MRE's (meals ready to eat) that I had purchased from the US Army surplus store for just such an occasion and after a few days we busted them out..not great food, but it made the experience more tolerable and to be honest a bit of fun for the kids. I am sure whom ever gets one will want to say Thank you. Since they probably will not get the chance, let me say it for them. Thanks mate, cheers.
Robert , Orlando, Florida

That is the first good review for a military ration pack I have seen in my life. Although Americans do not appreciate British cuisine that much I think they will be really thankful for this!
Patrick Wegner, Weston/USA

As an ex-soldier who used to live on these ration packs for weeks at a time, let me tell you that the food in the packs is very nice. And the one thing about all the food contained is that it can be eaten cold as well. So whilst it might not be what the people of new Orleans are used's not that bad!
Steve Mitchell, London - England

Thank you, Great Britain.
Tetman Callis, Albuquerque, USA

Many thanks to the British, both Army and civvie, for their support of New Orleans.
Frederick V. Bauerlein, Esq., Marietta, Georgia

I served in the military for a number of years and used these rat-packs. They are highly nutritious, extremely tasty, and you could swap stuff around with your mates if they had something you wanted and they didn't. I don't know what people are complaining about.
D. Allen, Cumbria

As an army cadet I have to eat 24hr ration packs on occasions. You have to understand how actually easy they are to eat and cook, kids of 13/14 can cook eat and throw away these rations without any problem and 9/10 they always find something they enjoy in them. On some occasions I've survived 18 hours on just the chocolate and the breakfast bag as they do give you a massive energy boost. However I've always been glad to get back home afterwards for a properly cooked meal!
Ben Ross, Sutton, surrey

I've used army ration packs that friends in the forces could get me for years, but my supply is running low. They are great for a few days on the hills - choosing the best options and what is needed they take up no space and are light too. Supermarket equivalents are too expensive and unnecessarily packaged. Please can us civvies get hold of forces rations!!
Mike Hunting, Durham, UK

I used to love ratpacks when I was in the Army - the boiled sweets, particularly as mentioned in the film Bravo 20 were delicious and unlike any I can find today. Also the ease of preparation would be ideal for sale to single people with rapid lifestyles 'the kebab population' - of today. Importantly, I just hope they can help those suffering right now in the US
Wayne, Netherlands

Anything MRE for vegetarians?
Rajiv, Demanest N.J. USA

I am a Brit now living in the USA and I remember my mother talking about the food packages sent by the USA to the UK during world war two. My mother received a package and saw her first tea-bag(unfortunately it had been packed next to a bar of soap with dire results in flavour!)Its good to know the Brits can now return the favour some fifty years later.
Eileen Sweet, Beverly hills, Michigan USA

When I was in the army many moons ago, we had bread, jam and water, so these young fellas can't complain. I just got by on pride and adrenaline.
steve Dexter, Leicester

Good to see a lighthearted article on the news frontpage. After spending nine months studying in England recently, I have become quite familiar with the dishes in the ration, but many here may be slightly taken aback at first. In any case, the ration appears to be of a much higher quality than my student diet, so I am sure they will be much appreciated by Katrina victims. I extend my thanks to the British Army for the aid in this time of need.
Rory Bigger, Syracuse, NY, USA

Several years ago, our daughter returned from cadet camps with the remains of her ration packs (pre-recent rethink), which were too much for a healthy teenager to consume. We still have a number of items (still in date) which now form part of an emergency kit which lives in a back pack which we always take on country hikes, whatever the weather. Glucose sweets, Kendal mint cake and fruit biscuits are the main items, but our daughter assured us that the burger and beans (in foil pouches) are delicious cold. We would be happy to use these items if necessary, and we are going prepared for potential mishaps. A nation that was not prepared for such a mishap should have no cause to complain about the contents of these packs.
Ray Gloster, Basingstoke UK

OK you've got me ....Where in New Orleans are you expected to get the water from to reconstitute these meal & drink packs?
Nick Broom, Midhurst, West Sussex

I much preferred the Treacle pudding when I was in the RAF.
Don Gatt, Elgin, Great Britain

Gas stoves as illustrated in your picture aren't standard issue, hexi stoves are standard issue with rats. However it's nice to hear the BBC have something positive to say about Britain's armed forces for once.
Adam, Sherwood, Nottingham, UK

I have lived on these "rat-packs" for 11 years in the army and I was raised on steamed snake'n'pigmy(steak and kidney)puddings while my dad served 25 years in army, cant fault them, everything a hungry person would need to give them a much needed boost to morale.
Daniel scull, bath, uk

I just want everyone to know how appreciative I am that there are others in the world helping out all of the people in the devastated US Gulf Coast. My Uncle lives on the coast in Mississippi and your gifts will help keep him going while they try to rebuild their community in Long Beach. Thank you.
Jay Stanton, New Jersey, USA

You have neglected the best use of the hot chocolate that all the recipients should learn is half a sachet of hot chocolate, 1 sachet of whitener and 1 sachet of sugar (add any whisky/ Irish cream for added irishness). Also the recipients should be warned that all the items are laxatives except for the savoury and sweet biscuits which have the opposite effect and therefore any meal should be planned with this in mind. (Who says you learn nothing useful in the cadets).
Barnaby Pace, London

One thing stands out, its not gourmet food and its not gastronomic, what the emergency ration packs is, is nutritional. Designed to sustain basic existence the ration packs are a lot better than nothing, it is an emergency after all.
Eddie Espie, Cookstown N.Ireland

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