Meet the Meat Lab: Research, teaching, local shop

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  • Ben Peterson, Graduate Student and Assistant Manager at the University of Illinois Meat Science Laboratory, helps a customer with their order.

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By Declan Harty

Despite a name like the Meat Science Laboratory, or better known as the “Meat Lab,” there are no mutated cows, experimental rats in small iron cages nor any two-snouted pigs.

The small brown brick building sits at 1503 S. Maryland Ave. in Urbana, nestled on a small patch of land between Alpha Tau Omega’s fraternity house and Mount Hope Cemetery. Typically, it remains unnoticed in most students’ daily routines.

But inside, the Meat Lab is an agent for research, a thriving meat processing facility and a learning experience for College of ACES students according to Chuck Stites, manager of the Meat Science Laboratory and an academic professional for the College of ACES.

“Our mission is to service the research teaching extension activities that the college needs,” Stites said. “We are a federally inspected meat processing facility that allows us to go ahead and sell the meat to the general public, or we could market it wholesale.”

The facility sells choice or higher cuts of meat through its salesroom, which is open Tuesdays and Thursdays from 1 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. and Fridays from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Outside of business hours, ACES students learn and participate in the facility’s operations along with the Meat Lab’s own staff. The class, Animal Science 219: Meat Technology, is an introductory course for students to better understand the process behind the meat processing.

The facility’s selection of approximately 70 items is also offered to various different organizations throughout campus. Its partnerships include The Bevier Café, certain Campus Dining events and the concession stand at Memorial Stadium, State Fare.

“We are very attuned to our clientele that come in, and there are certain cuts of meat that we offer that we didn’t used to,” Stites said.

The menu items range from 16 different kinds of sausages to ribs and New York Strips, and many other beef, lamb and pork cuts. Still, many international customers go beyond the traditional selections of pork and beef.

“On Tuesday, the day that we slaughter when we open at 1 p.m., we have generally got a line of 10 to 15 (international students) there,” Stites said. “We now (sell) ears, tails and snouts and cheek meat as well as the livers, hearts and kidneys … neck bones, pork bones — anything that has got skin or bone.”

For many customers, the draw to the Meat Lab over other grocers lies in the process of how the meats get to the salesroom.

“It isn’t a grocery store, it isn’t a meat market kind of thing,” said Michael Sullivan, a weekly customer and resident of Champaign. “I think the quality of the meat is great … it is local-grain fed, all that kind of good organic stuff that I think is just better to eat all the way around.”

With the rise of media and marketing exposure in recent years, Stites said the program has seen tremendous gains.

“Here in the last four to five years, we have been a net-revenue, positive revenue generating (facility),” Stites said.

Getting to the meat of it

The Meat Lab gets its livestock from farms located in the Central Illinois area. Stites said the swine farm is located south of Windsor Road in Champaign, while the beef facility is located in Urbana.

For lamb, Stites said the livestock used for the Meat Lab programs are brought down from a farm in Lexington, Ill., as part of an agreement the University has with Illinois State University.

When needed, the sheep are typically kept on the beef farm until they are ready to go to the Meat Lab or other University research facilities. The livestock is then slaughtered at the Meat Lab, as part of the program, and is processed into meat following an inspection.

“Livestock is brought up from the farms generally the afternoon before. The meat inspector comes in first thing in the morning and looks at the animals,” Stites said.

Stites said the meat inspector verifies that the livestock and carcasses are clean and healthy to be processed and eaten when the meat is slaughtered. On other days, the meat inspector does what Stites referred to as “patrolling assignments,” in which the inspector checks anything from cooler temperatures to looking at the facilities records.

The number of animals that Stites and his team slaughter varies upon many factors, including time of year, the public demand and the College’s demands for research purposes

During the semester, the classes at the Meat Lab cycle through the different types of meat — beef, pork and lamb — that dictates what is butchered and processed.

According to Stites, pigs are butchered and processed in the highest quantities, and the staff can sell between 10 and 20 pigs worth of product a week during the school year. When cattle is butchered and processed, it is anywhere from five to ten in a day. That product can last for three to four weeks.

On special occasions, though, Stites said they prepare to slaughter more than they typically handle on a weekly basis.

“In October, we have got one week where we are killing 96 pigs that week, we will do that in two days and then we will be off a week. Then we will do another 96 that following week later,” he said. “That is quite a bit of product for us because we really aren’t set up to handle that type of volume regularly.”

The character behind the cuts

The money that is gained from the Meat Lab’s profits from the salesroom are directly put back into the program, according to Stites.

With the excess revenue brought in over the past few years, Stites said he has plans to do some remodeling of the facility this fall and winter, including new air conditioning units and a new refrigeration unit in the salesroom.

“Basically we have a revolving account that all the student labor is paid out of, all the equipment, all the supplies that I purchase or use comes out of my account,” he said.

The student labor is a direct driving force of the Meat Lab. With the exception of Stites, all the other employees of the facility are students.

“The Meat Lab is a great place to work just because of the fact that the staff is very interconnected and we are all friends,” said Emily Matlak, a student employee who works the salesroom and senior in LAS. “You learn a lot through this program because you are learning about all the cuts of meat, learning how to cut, how to process and all the standards that go along with it from the state and the government.”

Matlak, who has worked at the Meat Lab for three years now, said she never anticipated working at the facility for as long as she has, especially as a history education major. But for Matlak, the experience of working there was much different from any of her incoming expectations.

“I mean it is one of those things… you walk in and you don’t really know what to expect at first, and then you realize it is not as bad as maybe people assume it’s going to be,” she said. “It is going to be better quality than anything you are going to get in the store, we only do choice or higher.”

For Stites, the Meat Lab allows a venue to not only conduct research and teach University students what he grew up doing, but it also allows him to serve the community.

“It is about as local as you can get,” he said. “Once people do come here and they try our products, and especially once they do build a relationship with us, they trust us full-heartedly with giving them products that are going to be satisfactory to them, they are going to be safe, they are going to taste good and going to be a good value and a good variety.”

Declan can be reached at [email protected]