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The McRib industrial complex: how the Army made the world's weirdest meat

This is the McRib, in all its restructured glory.
This is the McRib, in all its restructured glory.
David Paul Morris/Getty Images

Can the United States Army claim credit for the McRib?

That bizarre fast-food creation has long been the subject of cultish adoration and surprisingly credible conspiracy theories (like the one that speculates its mysterious appearances are timed to low pork prices).

But the best speculation about the McRib may be a new theory about its origins: that it's part of our lives thanks to the United States Army's quietly revolutionary food lab, located in Natick, Massachusetts.

How the Army played a role in the McRib

Some people feel profound joy when the McRib returns, similar to the birth of a child. But where did it come from?

Some people feel profound joy when the McRib returns, similar to the birth of a child. But where did it come from?

David Paul Morris/Getty Images

"What the Army develops is the backbone," Anastacia Marx de Salcedo says. "The private companies make it more palatable for the consumer."

She's the author of Combat-Ready Kitchen: How the U.S. Military Shapes the Way You Eat, a new book that tracks Army food research's wide influence on the culture at large. It's a rollicking, yet encyclopedic, look at the Army's role in everything from industrialized meats to energy bars. And that includes the restructured-meat masterpiece known as the McRib.

The traditional story behind the McRib's 1981 debut omits the Army's possible role. As Marx de Salcedo recounts, a few origin stories have jockeyed for attention, and each has a bit of truth: McDonald's chef Rene Arend crafted the McRib's unique flavor, inspired by the taste of baby back ribs, but he wasn't responsible for the food's base technology. While any McDonald's chef has to take a scientific view of food, thanks to the company's massive scale, Arend can't be credited for developing restructured meat.

From there, it gets harder to pin down who might be responsible. Marx de Salcedo identifies Dr. Roger Mandigo as one contender, who told Marx de Salcedo that in 1970, "the project was funded by the National Pork Council with the pork producers check-off fund ... our original restructured pork was shaped like chops; McDonald's adapted them for their McRibs." Marx de Salcedo also notes the work of Dr. Dale Huffman, a professor who developed a restructured pork chop in 1969 that he originally tried to sell to Burger King.

But the most interesting contender might be the fourth one: John Secrist, a food scientist at the Natick Soldier Center for Research and Development. That's the place where the US Army develops its groundbreaking food for the troops as part of its Combat Feeding Program (you'll find more info at http://hotchow.natick.army.mil/ — that's right: hot chow). Secrist told Marx de Salcedo that in the '60s, Natick asked him and his team to develop a cheaper version of steaks and chops.

The Army then partnered with a meat flaking company in Ohio in order to break down meat and reassemble it into the meatlike blobs that are familiar today in the form of the McRib. Natick enlisted many meatpackers to do trial runs to see if the technology was viable, and as a result, it made its way to the private sector. "Denny's used our restructured beefsteak in their restaurant," Secrist said, "and McDonald's McRib is as close to our product as you can get."

The Army didn't sit in McDonald's kitchen and tell the chefs how to season their gloriously weird ribs. But Marx de Salcedo argues that they did provide the driving force to make restructured meat a commercial reality. Even Mandigo, the food scientist often credited with the McRib's technology, told Salcedo that "the military allowed us to use the processes they developed."

The Army helped shape everything from lunchmeat to energy bars

A food scientist at the Natick Center in 2012

A food scientist at the Natick Center in 2012.

Boston Globe/Getty Images

The McRib is just one of the Army's food inventions, and Marx de Salcedo was inspired to use Combat-Ready Kitchen to show how Army food shaped the palate of the masses.

"Military-funded food science has a focus on imperishability, durability, affordability, and palatability," Marx de Salcedo says. Concerns like sustainability and long-term health come after the immediate needs of soldiers.

Private companies work alongside the Army through arrangements like Cooperative Research and Development Agreements (CRADAs). The Army gets staff, labs, and help developing new foods, while the private companies hope for innovations, a jump on the rest of the market, and a chance at some intellectual property rights.

That partnership has led to numerous Army-boosted innovations in long-lasting, calorically dense, cheap foods, including lunchmeat and energy bars. As a result of the Army's influence, other food goals have only been secondary concerns.

So will the future of Army food continue to be the highly durable, slightly unusual, wartime-ready food of the past? Maybe, maybe not. The Natick Center is cautious about pumping its food full of supplements, and some of the new innovations Marx de Salcedo profiles at the end of Combat-Ready Kitchen center on things like waste conversion, not curios like the McRib. Today the center promotes its non-foil packaging on its homepage, not any mutant foods fit for Captain America.

Still, the Army's need for durable foods that pack a caloric punch is unlikely to change. That means Natick's symbiotic relationship with private companies is likely to encourage R&D for soldier-friendly foods that happen to meet consumer needs.

And that means the next McRib may be just around the corner.