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Innovation Profile:
Meats Laboratory at Iowa State University

ISU students and instructor inspecting meat

Meats Laboratory at Iowa State is Essential to Modern Animal Science

For more than 100 years, the Meats Laboratory at Iowa State University has been a groundbreaking and important resource for the state of Iowa and the world. The Meat Science program began in the early 1900s to provide education to farmers butchering their own livestock, with classes and “meat demonstrations” held on campus. When construction was completed on the first Meats Laboratory building in 1917, it was only the second land grant institution with a similar facility on campus. The lab and program have continued to innovate and evolve, building a reputation around the globe as a leader in research, technology and food safety.

“The Meats Lab is a unique combination of excellence in teaching, research and outreach, all in a modern, federally-inspected meat processing facility,” said Terry Houser, associate professor and ISU Extension and Outreach meat specialist. “We have one of the largest faculty and staff of any meat science program, our facility houses one of the largest collections of equipment available for projects of all scope, and we have the ability to serve outside companies in research and development projects as well as our own faculty research.”

Eight faculty members, eight staff members, eight graduate students and 15 undergraduate students (when classes are in session) work at the Meats Lab, but its impact reaches a much broader range of students and industry professionals. Most the animals processed are from the university’s own farms, and are harvested for teaching, research and extension purposes. The lab supports modern meat technology and product development and operates its own retail meat store with online sales available.

“The Meats Laboratory is essential to modern animal science. Not only is research conducted on meats, but also animals from all aspects of research from within the department are processed here to gather data for further research, such as genetics and nutrition,” said Houser. “By having the Meats Lab on campus, students have the opportunity to gain hands-on experience in harvesting, grading, cutting and processing of meat and meat products.”

Research at Iowa State pioneered a number of areas in the meat industry, including understanding the biochemistry of meat to influence tenderness, taste and quality, bringing more consistency to meat grading, and understanding how animal handling can impact animal health and meat quality. Iowa State has also been a leader in food safety and developed a number of process technologies that have influenced practices across the industry.

The program has become internationally-known for series of short-course training programs, which started in the 1970s, such as Sausage and Processed Meats Short Course, HACCP Workshop, Cured Meat Short Course and more.

“Annually, we typically have well over 1,000 people participate in one of our training programs that range from hands-on processing to HACCP and food safety training,” said Houser. “These participants come from all aspects of the industry such as production, maintenance, equipment engineering and manufacturing, equipment sales, ingredient manufacturers, sales personnel and hobbyists.”

Another legacy of the Iowa State Meat Science program is the accomplishments and roles that program alumni have held in industry, government agencies and as researchers and faculty members at Iowa State and around the world.

The program offers masters and doctorate degrees in meat science as well as an undergraduate minor in meat science. Graduate students can supplement their focus in Meat Science by taking courses in food science, microbiology, biochemistry, statistics and many other areas on campus, as well as conducting collaborative research with faculty in those areas.

The Meats Lab also played an important role in the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. Meats Lab staff and students harvested 86 head of cattle and 40 head of hogs and processed ground beef and ground pork for the Food Bank system in Iowa as part of the Pass the Pork and Beef Up Iowa programs. In total, more than 147,000 pounds of ground beef and ground pork were distributed, with plans to continue processing in January.

“The Meats Laboratory is a perfect example of living the land grant mission of Iowa State University,” said Dr. Dan Thomson, chair, Department of Animal Science. “From its start providing education to farm families butchering their own livestock, to all the programs that have served students, farmers, processors and government officials over the years, everything we do is focused on using science to deliver high quality, safe and nutritious meat to the world.”