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Developing Better Meat Products Through Research

The University of Wyoming Meat Lab—a food processing plant and research facility in one

Lauren Everett

Lauren Everett is the managing editor for Lab Manager. She holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from SUNY New Paltz and has more than a decade of experience in news...

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Adapted from a uw photo

Many consumers who purchase meats from their local grocery store aren’t well informed about where the products come from, or about the steps involved in the harvest process. At the University of Wyoming Meat Lab, students in the College of Agriculture and the Animal/Food Science departments, as well as collaborating researchers, not only learn about the science and process, but are directly involved in it.

The Meat Lab encompasses nearly 10,000 square feet of space, and was designed for education, research, and extension purposes. Because the facility serves multiple purposes, it was crucial to have designated spaces for each function. “The main aspect of construction and design that made the lab unique was the ability to offer a more organized flow via the multitude of rooms that allowed for the separation of different events and processes,” says Kyle Phillips, Meat Lab manager. “Not being limited to one large processing area and cooler space is very important.”

The facility works with all types of animal meat—pork, lamb, beef, etc.—to produce products like meatballs, sausages, patties, and smoked or cured products. The facility has a slaughter floor, fabrication room, processing room, designated coolers for different needs, a room dedicated just to inedible items, research project storage, and retail item space. “The lab is designed to take a meat animal in, [and] through the harvest process, fabricate it into steaks, roasts, etc., create value-added products, then package, box, and sell these items,” explains Phillips.

Feeding future generations

Producing and processing high-quality meat products for consumption is a complex task. Food scientists and those in the meat industry are constantly studying the innate character of muscle and meat to enhance flavor and quality for the consumer. Scientists are also beginning to discover new ways to capitalize on the genetic potential of animals for higher quality products.

Sustainable food production is an important issue across the food industry. Meat scientists, like other food scientists and agriculturists, are looking at new food production methods and practices that are more sustainable for future generations. By 2100, it is estimated that the global population will grow to 11 billion. Meeting that grand demand for nutritious food while limiting harm to the environment is an incredible challenge. In addition to helping solve these challenges, research at the Meat Lab also focuses on the health of local animals. “The UW Meat Lab has been an important facility for assessing animals used in high-altitude disease studies in which organ and tissue samples are collected immediately to assess changes in mRNA,” explains Phillips.

The lab is located in Laramie, WY, at an elevation of 7,200 feet, making it an ideal facility for this type of research. Other recent research projects conducted at the lab have involved data collection to help evaluate microbiological control interventions to validate the food safety HACCP (hazard analysis and critical control points) plan in the facility. According to Phillips, “upcoming research conducted in the Meat Lab will assess carcass composition and cutability characteristics in pork and lamb, as well as facilitating collection of various muscles that will be used to predict and characterize sensory performance.”

In addition to conducting research, the facility functions as a processing and food production plant. With that, cleanliness and safety are top priority. “As a processing plant, we are state inspected by the Wyoming Department of Agriculture. With this in mind, having a grant of inspection requires us to maintain appropriate GMPs, SOPs, SSOPs, and HACCP plans for every product that is created in the lab,” says Phillips. “As a food production facility, we pay close attention to cleanliness, maintain that there is no cross-contamination between different species or items containing allergens, submit to testing for microorganisms to ensure that all of our plans and safeties are working as intended, and that we are creating a safe and wholesome product for consumption.” All lab staff are required to scrub in prior to entering the space, and must have on proper hair covers, clean frocks, closed-toe shoes, and hard hats when necessary.

The University of Wyoming’s Meat Lab student workersCredit: UW PhotoThe University of Wyoming’s Meat Lab student workers get various meat cuts readyCredit: UW Photo
The University of Wyoming’s Meat Lab student workers get various meat cuts readyCredit: UW PhotoThe University of Wyoming’s Meat Lab student workers get various meat cuts ready for use by the UW meats judging team practices.

Phillips has extensive experience in the meat industry, previously working at the Rosenthal Meat & Science Technology Center at Texas A&M University, before joining the Meat Lab in Wyoming as manager in August 2019. “This allowed me the opportunity to continue working where my passion lies, which is within the mixture of meat industry, teaching, providing outreach/resources to other meat processors, and assisting in the research that is designed to help solve the challenges faced by meat industry personnel and meat scientists,” says Phillips.

The student-employees working in the facility take on a bulk of the daily responsibilities, which Phillips says is beneficial to their development and aids in the transition from college into the first steps of their careers.

Although Phillips is new to the Wyoming Meat Lab team, he has already outlined future goals and a vision going forward for the facility. “It’s my hope moving forward that I am able to help expand on the research opportunities within the College of Agriculture and Animal Science Department at the University of Wyoming, as well as with other institutions that we may collaborate with in the future,” he says. He also wants to provide more extension and outreach to the community and other local meat processors, and be a source of valuable information for them.