Inside the Meat Science Laboratory

Tim Eggerding

Tim Eggerding

By Agnes Jasinski

Dozens of students walk past the inconspicuous meat science laboratory on the way to their Florida and Pennsylvania Avenue residence halls without a second glance. Inside, professors, students and researchers are hard at work developing new products and preparing and selling meat from University-raised swine and cattle in the lab’s fully functional abattoir, or slaughterhouse, and processing plant.

“We look at the whole process… from conception to consumption,” said Tom Carr, professor in meat science and undergraduate teaching coordinator in the department of animal sciences. “Seeing the process from start to finish is an educational process in itself.”

Several of the courses offered at the lab are not for the squeamish. Professor Floyd McKeith offers a class in meat technology where students get hands-on experience in “harvesting,” or slaughtering, and carcass fabrication of swine and cattle for the lab’s meat sales every Tuesday, Thursday and Friday.

“The students do everything,” McKeith said of the 12 to 15 who sign up for his class each year. “They immobilize… they bleed the animals. They’re all appropriate techniques.”

Chuck Stites, the meat lab manager, oversees the harvesting in the lab downstairs. The lab hires 10 to 15 undergraduates each year to assist in everything from harvesting the animals and processing the carcasses into retail cuts to meat sales and sanitation, Carr said.

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“Some come in with no knowledge (of animal science) and change their career focus and major,” Carr said.

Sean Holmer, a graduate student, was a sophomore in pre-veterinary medicine when he started working in the lab downstairs to make some money. Through the professors who introduced him to new courses, he was set up with an internship at a meat company and now hopes to either become a professor or continue research in making new products and producing higher quality meats.

“The first time I was there, it was something new and different,” Holmer said of working with the harvesting. “It’s something that gets to be a part of the job.”

The abattoir is inspected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture on state and federal levels. This allows the lab to ship its products anywhere in the United States, although the meat is mostly sold locally and by word of mouth. The sales bring in about $300,000 a year, Carr said, which goes to the production of meat, maintenance of the lab and student aid.

“We’ve got a very loyal clientele,” he said of the students, faculty and local residents who come to the meat sales. “We sell at the same price as you’d get anywhere else. We’re supported by state and federal taxes, so it can get ‘ouchy’ if we hurt their business.”

Debbie Evans, a junior in animal science and pre-veterinary medicine, always buys her meat – especially the bacon – from the meat sales.

“If you want to know where to get good bacon, go there,” Evans said.

The lab’s bacon and sausages are smoked in hickory sawdust in the smokehouse downstairs. Controlled by a computer, the smokehouse is “not cheap,” Carr noted.

Other retail cuts are cured, or prepared, with various ingredients, and tenderized by staff and students in white frocks and cooler coats, hairnets and gloves.

A “dehairing” machine is used for lamb and swine; the machine heats to a certain temperature, causing the hair to fall off of the pigs’ follicles. The animals are then split, their intestines removed, washed, stamped, weighed and put inside a cooler, all of which are kept at 38 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit, Carr said.

The meat lab is more than a meat processing plant, however; it has been a research facility since it replaced a large animal clinic at its current site in 1982.

Research at the meat science lab has always been a focus of the graduate students and faculty who collaborate to make improvements in the meat industry. The research is both basic and applied, from genetics and molecular and cellular biology to more direct work with live animals and making meat safer and healthier. Professor John Killefer has been evaluating mechanisms that regulate muscle growth and development. These mechanisms are important in preventing obesity, poor tissue development and muscular dystrophy in animals.

“We’re looking a lot at chronic wasting disease… the sister to Mad Cow,” Killefer said of a project in collaboration with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

Research is primarily conducted by the four faculty members at the lab: Carr, McKeith, Killefer and Professor Jan Edward Novakofski.

“We do a lot of work with other faculty members, folks outside the University and in the industry,” Carr said.

Graduate students work closely with each other and the professors on projects of their own. Lou Kutzler, a graduate student, is focusing his thesis on ways to prevent pathological infections in meat to improve food safety.

“When you think of something in the lab and implement it on the farm, it’s neat how things turn out,” Kutzler said. “You can apply what you find to other projects… tie things together.”

Although students with meat science backgrounds have a tremendous amount of opportunities offered to them when they graduate, it is a challenge attracting more to the program, Carr said. Meat science students have gone on to jobs in government inspection, quality assurance, food processing and product development, he said, to name a few.

Joe Gooding, a recent graduate from the master’s program, said doing research for companies and making contacts while in the program can help when students graduate.

“There are not nearly enough students to fulfill the demand for jobs,” Carr said. “If you pay your dues and work your way up, there are great rewards down the road.”

Many of the students in the animal sciences department are interested in companion animals or veterinary medicine. Fewer understand there are more technical opportunities out there, McKeith said.

“The food industry is challenging,” McKeith said. “Most students think of the local butcher when they hear that. They don’t think of working as a researcher at Oscar Meyer or in food safety at Tyson. It’s a very good market.”

One of the lab’s aims is to reduce the amount of fat in animals by looking at their genetics, how they’ve been fed on the farm and management of the meat in carcass form. Faculty and students run samples of meat through chemicals and solutions to determine their fat content.

“It’s a war against fat,” Carr said, mentioning the Atkins diet as a significant influence in the shift in research. “Consumers have become very concerned over the past 20 years. Fat is a dirty word in the meat industry.”

Research at the lab is conducted with a close eye on the beef and pork industries, Killefer said. The lab addresses their concerns and gives them suggestions by evaluating the issues costing them customers, he added.

The area of the lab most concerned with the finished product is the taste-testing lab, where the light is set at a particular degree of dimness so testers are unable to see the meat’s coloring and how well it was cooked. Testers, mostly graduate students and faculty, grade the meat based on juiciness, tenderness and flavor, Carr said.

Funding for research projects at the lab can come from private companies, foundations or government agencies, McKeith said. Available funding has decreased, making it difficult to maintain the upkeep of the lab, and impossible to buy new equipment or fill retired positions, Carr said.

“Budget cuts hurt us from the research standpoint,” Carr said. “We’ve had to look more to grants, outside sources of funding… we compete with other universities and researchers on research projects.”