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Classroom with a meat case

MADISON – So it’s Saturday, and you’ve just learned that an RV full of Badgers fans is on its way to your place for a post-basketball game victory party. You need meat, and fast. But where around campus can you find good, fresh steaks?

Here’s an option that may surprise you: the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Meat Science and Muscle Biology Laboratory.

Tucked in the shadow of the Campus Drive pedestrian bridge, the lab operates much like a small-scale meat processing plant, where white-coated staff and students harvest animals, process meat and prepare steaks, chops, sausages and other choice meat products. Although the lab has been around since 1931, its primary purpose has been to conduct research on meat processing techniques and help train students for jobs in the industry, and so only a few wholesalers and campus insiders have had the opportunity to taste its handiwork.

In July, however, the lab launched a store to sell its products to the public. Open only on Fridays (from 8:30 a.m.-4 p.m.), the store – a converted spice room near the front entrance of the building – offers everything from top sirloin to lamb chops to Polish sausages at competitive prices, all while closing the loop on the educational experience for students who work in the lab.

“The store is an integral part of the educational process in this lab,” says Kurt Vogel, who as interim manager of the laboratory manages its 10 student employees. “It gives students an outlet for the products they are making in the lab, and it exposes them to the basic skills of running a business.”

Although UW-Madison offers several courses on meat science through its animal sciences major, working in the meat lab is one of the best ways to get an introduction to the industry, says Vogel. In fact, only three of Vogel’s current crew are animal-science majors. Many students sign on simply for the hourly work, initially knowing little about what”s involved in preparing and cutting meat.

“I just needed a job,” says Jordan Matthews, a junior majoring in dairy science. “I didn”t know a single thing about it when I started. I just knew I went to the store and paid a couple of bucks for some meat.” Now he says he has new appreciation for the handiwork involved in creating different meat products.

That”s a common story, says Dan Schaefer, chair of the animal sciences department. “None of our undergraduate students come in knowing they have an interest in meat sciences. The industry isn’t highly visible to the public, and students usually haven’t had the opportunity to connect with it,” he says. “But after they take our courses and work in the lab, many of them find out it”s very appealing.”

One reason is employment opportunity. Wisconsin rivals Pennsylvania as one of the biggest meat-producing states in the country. Beyond the familiar names such as Oscar Mayer, Hormel, Johnsonville and Usinger’s, the state is home to more than 300 companies that process meat products, making it the fourth largest manufacturing industry in Wisconsin. UW-Madison’s meat sciences program works closely with many of those companies, helping them refine processing technology and test new products.

As a result of those connections, many students find working in the meat lab can lead directly to job offers. “That’s an important part of what we need to be doing, training people to work in this industry,” says Vogel. “It’s appealing for an employer to see a student that has had this kind of hands-on responsibility.”

Vogel also knows the rewards such responsibility can bring for students. His own exposure to meat processing came when he took a job as a student worker in the lab, and he remembers the fulfillment that came with creating a finished product. He first proposed the idea of a retail outlet within the lab to promote that sense of ownership among the lab”s student staff, who work alongside the facility”s full-time staff and are involved in every step of the process.

“Students are extremely responsible and intelligent,” says Vogel. “It takes a lot to get into this school, and my feeling is that we should let them use their skills. I let them make some of the decisions about what we”re going to process and when, and how to advertise for the store.”

A case in point arose last fall, when Matthews and another student employee, Clayton Wohlk, were making snack sticks from a recipe of meats and spices. “We didn”t like the flavor of the stuff we were making,” says Wohlk, a junior dairy-science major, “so we changed some things around and added peppers.”

Vogel liked the result so much that he had students prepare a batch of the spicier sticks to sell in the store. They came up with a name – Jordan and Clayt”s Hot Sticks – and even designed a product label.

“The biggest thing is that now they can take something home to their family and say, “Look what I did,”” says Vogel.

And taking your work home with you never tasted so good.