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The Army administered the unusual taste test after U.S. Sen. David Vitter, R-La., pressured the military to look at Utah's Gossner Foods as a possible supplier for the Persian Gulf. Gossner's distributor, Diversified Foods, has its headquarters in Metairie, La.
In Utah, Gossner President Delores Gossner Wheeler contacted U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch's office for help in getting the right to bid on the milk contract. Wheeler said Hatch, R-Utah, told her federal law permits the U.S. military to buy non-American products in combat zones.
Hatch wrote a letter on behalf of Gossner last November to Tarek Abdul Aziz Sultan-Al-Essa, chairman of Public Warehousing Corp., which holds a $3.3 billion purchasing contract to supply food and other materials for troops in the Middle East. The letter requested that the Kuwaiti-based Public Warehousing consider buying Gossner milk for military distribution, but there has been no reply.
Facing criticism for denying a Logan dairy company the chance to bid on an overseas military contract, the U.S. Army says GIs prefer Persian Gulf-made reconstituted powdered milk over the real stuff from Utah.
Army officials point to a taste test conducted in December in a Kuwaiti mess hall of ultra-high temperature milk (UHT), which needs no refrigeration. The samples were from the Bahrain-based Awal Dairy, which uses powdered milk and got a contract to supply U.S. troops stationed in the Persian Gulf,and from Gossner Foods in northern Utah, which uses fresh milk in the pasteurization process, extending its shelf life.
A report released by the U.S. Defense Supply Center in Philadelphia said the majority of soldiers in the taste test - which included samples of whole and low-fat milk, and strawberry and chocolate varieties - want the military to continue supplying UHT milk from Awal Dairy. The Army did not indicate how many soldiers participated in the test, but there are no more than 30 responses for questions involving preferences in color, texture and taste.
The report said only 32 percent of 22 volunteers recommended buying Gossner's nonfat milk, while 75 percent of 24 participants favored Awal. Percentages were similar for the strawberry and whole milk samplings, while a slight majority favored Gossner's chocolate milk.
It was difficult to get soldiers stationed at Camp Arifjan to participate in the test, said the report, because most were not milk drinkers. But those who did were "eager and frank in their tasting," the report said.
Military officials declined to discuss what appear to be discrepancies in the official report. For instance, one section uses a rating system of "9" indicating the best liked, down to "1" for the least preferred. But in another section the ratings are reversed, with the lowest number indicating the most preferred.
"Since there is no information on what controls were taken during the taste testing, the results would only have a low level of confidence that they were a true measure of the preference of milk drinkers in the military," said Professor Don McMahon, director of the Dairy Products Lab at Utah State University, who examined the survey.
On Tuesday, Marine Sgt. Kevin Peck, who was stationed in Iraq last year, said the Bahrain-made milk is thick and heavy and the flavored versions are too sweet. "It's like they don't have the proportions right," said Peck, whose friend snapped a photograph of Peck holding a carton of Gossner milk mailed to him by his parents.
For more than 20 years, Gossner has supplied UHT milk for the U.S. military all over the world - except the Persian Gulf. Gossner President Delores Gossner Wheeler said that history makes her question the Army's taste test.
"This is totally different than what we've heard from soldiers over the years," said Wheeler. "I don't understand why suddenly a reconstituted product is not as good as the milk that comes fresh from our dairy farmers here."
Gilbert Montoya, deputy commander of the Defense Logistics Agency, which oversees Pentagon contracts, said the Middle Eastern milk is cheaper than Gossner's, saving taxpayers $2.1 million a year that mostly goes toward high shipping costs from the United States.
But Tab Damiens, CEO of Gossner distributor Diversified Foods, said the calculations are skewed and do not take into account taxes paid by U.S. companies that overseas firms are exempted from paying.
The Army also said the overseas milk poses less risk because of shorter supply lines.
The report did not examine the quality of the milk, noting that veterinarian personnel with Central Command and Coalition Forces Land Component Command ensure that all food supplied to U.S. troops "meets or exceeds the same standards for safety and quality that are applied to food in the United States."