UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — In his 27 years as the manager of Penn State’s meat processing laboratory and retail operation in the College of Agricultural Sciences, Glenn Myers has fielded a wide range of questions on topics ranging from how to cook pork to which cut of beef is the leanest.
But the prime query he receives focuses on his opinion of the facility’s beef, pork and lamb products. He doesn’t mince words when responding.
“High quality, fresh and local,” said Myers, who admits that he sometimes shares his sentiments without being asked. “Consumers want to know where their food comes from, and we are proud to tell them that our products come from animals raised right here at Penn State.”
While the meat products are highly valued among the lab’s regulars, the primary function of the 16,000-square-foot Porter Road facility — which has been in operation since 1958 — is to support the college’s teaching, research and extension programs, noted Adele Turzillo, professor and head of the Department of Animal Science.
“The meat laboratory supports comprehensive research and teaching on all aspects of meat science,” said Turzillo. “The faculty and staff are dedicated to excellence in research, teaching and extension. They continually develop new products and programs to support the industry.”
The meat lab, which is inspected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, enables students to learn everything about meat science, starting with the basic anatomy of livestock and ending with the final product. Many universities in the Northeast do not offer these hands-on opportunities, noted Jonathan Campbell, associate professor of animal science and meat extension specialist.
More than 200 undergraduates each year take courses such as “Animal Products Technology,” “Meat Animal Evaluation” and “Muscle Foods Processing.” In addition to their experiences in the meat laboratory, students often interface with faculty and staff from Penn State’s Beef-Sheep Center, Swine Education and Research Farm, Poultry Education and Research Center, and Department of Food Science.
“Lessons emphasize the humane treatment of animals, the importance of food safety and adherence to good manufacturing practices,” Campbell said. “For students who plan to enter the meat industry, there is no better preparation.”
That was true for Nelson Gaydos, of Elizabethtown, who worked in the meat lab during his undergraduate and graduate years at Penn State. He assisted with tasks such as butchering, equipment sanitation and assisting customers.
Gaydos, who holds a bachelor’s degree in food science and a master’s degree in animal science with a focus on meat microbiology, joined the American Association of Meat Processors in 2016 as an outreach specialist.
“Working in the meat lab shaped my career path immensely,” said Gaydos, who grew up on a farm in southwestern Pennsylvania. “The faculty and staff are knowledgeable, hard-working and dedicated to teaching students — and their customers — all there is to know about meat processing.”
The meat lab also serves as a hub for faculty research. Recent projects include studies of microbiological safety of meat, low-fat meat-product technology, meat packaging technologies, and electronic sensors for assessing meat properties.
Educational opportunities are not limited to students at University Park. “We also educate industry and consumers through Penn State Extension workshops and webinars,” Campbell said. “Meat processing methods, business and marketing principles, and safe food handling techniques are just a few of the many topics covered.”
The outreach to Pennsylvania companies is important because the commonwealth ranks fifth among states in the total number of federally inspected meat processing facilities. One of the many companies that has sought product development and food safety guidance from Penn State is Stoltzfus Meats in Intercourse, Pennsylvania.
“We have an excellent relationship with Penn State,” said Nate Hershey, project and facilities manager for Stoltzfus Meats. “Using experts helps us in anything new that we’re doing and maintaining what we’re currently doing. Having the support of Jonathan Campbell and Penn State Extension is invaluable. They are eager to help us succeed.”
Another way faculty and staff are helping the meat industry is through a new apprenticeship program, the Penn State Butcher School. The program provides training for those who want to work in the industry and enables them to earn “hazard analysis and critical control point” certification, a required food safety credential.
Critical to funding the educational and outreach activities of the meat lab is the weekly sale at the lab’s retail store — now called the Butcher Block at Penn State — which is open from 9:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Fridays during the fall and spring semesters. Fans flock to the Butcher Block to stock up on fresh steaks, roasts, ground beef, pork chops, leg of lamb, summer sausage, snack sticks and other products.
“It’s not unusual for us to show up for work to find a line stretching around the building,” said Myers, who added that the first sale of the fall semester is Aug. 27. “Football season is a busy time. We enjoy interacting with our regular customers and new ones. Our goal is to deliver friendly customer service along with quality products.”
Last year, the facility processed about 60,000 pounds of fresh beef, 24,000 pounds of fresh pork, 3,000 pounds of fresh lamb and 30,000 pounds of meat snacks. New products, particularly those reflecting flavor trends in meat sticks, are in the works.
The Butcher Block provides meat products to campus dining locations and to the Penn State Berkey Creamery. For those who can’t make it to campus, the Butcher Block’s beef sticks, summer sausage, salami and jerky are available for purchase online at the Creamery website.
Turzillo would like to build the Penn State meat science program by expanding the scope of research, increasing enrollment in the Butcher School and supporting the growth of retail sales. “We have an outstanding program, but we are striving for more,” she said. “From my perspective, meat science at Penn State has a future with endless possibilities.”
More information can be found on the facility’s Facebook page or online at https://animalscience.psu.edu/
–Amy Duke, Penn State University