Meats Laboratory eyes expanded programming after pandemic shutdown

Two men put summer sausages into packages inside the Iowa State Univeristy meats laboratory

Summer sausage is packaged at the ISU Meats Laboratory last year. The laboratory had to halt many of its normal operations last year due to the pandemic, but lab personnel are eyeing programming expansions for next year. Image courtesy of Matthew Wenger. Larger image.

AMES, Iowa – The pandemic halted operations last year at the Iowa State University Meats Laboratory, a federally inspected facility that has processed a huge variety of meat products for over four decades.

The lab has hosted countless courses over the years, for ISU students and beyond, and was the site for numerous research projects. But all of that activity ground to a halt a year ago when most university employees were sent home as the pandemic turned life in the United States upside down.

“I’d say it was a pretty difficult thing for a lot of us,” said Matthew Wenger, a program specialist at the Meats Laboratory. “Our facility was pretty idle at the time.”

But the laboratory soon implemented new safety procedures for the coronavirus era and found new ways to feed hungry Iowans hit hard by the economic fallout. Over the last several months, the Meats Laboratory has gradually restarted many of its previous activities, and laboratory officials are starting to focus on the future, Wenger said. He points to expanded course offerings and improved building and equipment infrastructure as possibilities that could help the laboratory better support the university’s meat science program as well as the wider meat processing industry.

Although the pandemic isn’t yet over, momentum is building again at the ISU Meats Laboratory.

“We have a bright future ahead,” said Terry Houser, associate professor of animal science and ISU Meats Laboratory director. “We’ve got new course offerings on the horizon and great potential to do an even better job of supporting our students, our partners and the state of meat processing globally.”

From shutdown to feeding Iowans

The Meats Laboratory facility is tucked away near Kildee Hall on the ISU campus. The facility houses all the equipment and infrastructure necessary to slaughter, process, package and sell meat products ranging from fresh cuts of meat, to ground beef and pork, to processed sausages and bologna. The laboratory also provides a way for ISU students to get hands-on experience in meat processing and for faculty to conduct research into nutrition, food safety and other critical topics.

During the early months of the pandemic when most of the lab’s functions were on hold, employees used the shutdown as an opportunity to review and update process control systems, in accordance with federal regulations. But a new chance to put the lab’s capabilities to use arose last June when the lab partnered with the Feeding Iowans Task Force to begin processing meat for the state’s food bank and food pantry systems.

Gov. Kim Reynolds, Lt. Gov. Adam Gregg and Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig formed the task force to help livestock producers with limited processing options due to the pandemic get meat to hungry Iowans. Over the course of the program, the ISU Meats Laboratory processed hundreds of thousands of pounds of ground beef and pork that was delivered to food banks across the state.

Restarting and expanding short courses

The ISU Meats Laboratory has earned a national reputation for offering highly informative courses covering a variety of topics related to meat processing. The courses often include a combination of classroom and hands-on instructions and cover topics like cured meats and basic sausage making. Many of the courses allow participants to make finished processed meat products by the conclusion.

The courses draw a diverse spectrum of people with an interest in meat processing. ISU students, students from other academic institutions, employees from small meat lockers, R&D teams from major food processors and meat processing equipment engineers have all taken short courses at the laboratory over the years.

“Anyone who has any involvement in the meat processing industry will participate in our short courses,” Wenger said. “You name it, they’ve come through our programs.”

Last year’s short courses were all cancelled, but the laboratory plans to offer short courses once again starting this July. The laboratory usually hosts a weeklong sausage and processed meats course with an enrollment of around 70 people every July. This year’s course will focus on basic sausage and will be limited to a couple days and an enrollment of around 24 people.

But the laboratory plans to open the course back up to larger enrollments as soon as it’s safe to do so. The lab also plans to expand its course offerings in 2022 to include new programming on fresh beef and pork, snack sticks and barbecue.

In yet another sign that the laboratory is setting its sights on the future, in-person retail sales of its meat products resumed in February. For much of the pandemic, the only option for consumers to purchase meat from the laboratory was to order online for curbside pickup. Now, consumers can drop by the usual storefront in Kildee Hall from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. every Friday. Curbside pickup remains an option for customers who prefer it.

The lab sells a robust selection of pork and beef cuts, as well as processed and cooked items. Wenger recommends shoppers act quickly whenever the laboratory has cuts of lamb available. While many of the laboratory’s products sell well, lamb always flies off the shelf, he said.