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Friday, July 19, 2024

Column: In the Meat Lab

I stood in front of a large, shiny metallic cube last Wednesday. It was about eight feet tall with a small oval window in the door. Before I could get a good look through the window, the door opened. When the savory smell of smoked and seasoned pork hit my nose, I realized that it had been a bad idea to skip lunch. Few things stimulate hunger like cooking meat.

The man who opened the door was Caleb Sehnert, facility manager for the Meat Laboratory in the Department of Animal Science. Sehnert has only worked for the Meat Lab for about three years, but the meat industry has always been a part of his life as his grandparents owned a cattle ranch and his father was a butcher.

At the Meat Lab, Sehnert has both a management and a teaching role. He gives students in the animal science lab classes hands-on experience in the daily functions of the Meat Lab such as slaughtering, processing and cutting the meat. New classes start at the kill floor.

“Before we start, I prep them [the students],” Sehnert said. “I tell them, ‘If you guys want to be vets, you should see this.'”

By the time I arrived at the lab, the animals had already been slaughtered and the room cleaned. Sehnert’s description of how the procedure works, however, helped me visualize the scene.

Before anything happens, representatives from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) examine the animals in their pens. They check to make sure the pens are kept clean, that there are no sharp edges and that all the animals are healthy enough to stand on all of their legs and walk. If anything is amiss, nothing is allowed to proceed until the problems are fixed.

Once the USDA representative gives the approval, the cattle are the first to the kill floor. A blank round to their head stuns the cow instantly. The USDA, which follows the cow inside, checks for noises, eye movements and muscle twitches that could indicate the animal is aware.

“All animals are stunned before they are bled out,” Sehnert said. He is aware of hidden camera investigations of disreputable slaughterhouses, where the animals are clearly in pain before their death.

“Not only would the facility be held responsible, but the [USDA] inspector that allowed that to happen would go to jail as well,” Sehnert said. “[The inspectors] want to watch everything.”

The UC Davis Meat Lab is considered a small slaughterhouse, processing 600 to 800 animals per year. While most large slaughterhouses use machines to skin and cut the animals, most of this preparation is done here by hand.

The digestive tracts, which in cattle can be about 150 pounds, are removed and placed with the rest of the organs in a cart below the animal. The inspector examines the organs (also by hand) for signs of disease. Once given the all clear, the lab employees skin the animal by hand.

After the slaughtering, the carcasses are chilled, cut and packaged. In the cutting room I met Cindy Garcia, a junior animal science major who has worked in the meat lab for two years.

“I’m pre-vet and want to be a surgeon,” Garcia said. “It’s good practice.”

After cutting, the meat is seasoned and sent to the environmental oven, better known as the smokehouse. The smokehouse is a precisely controlled metallic cube, programmed to stay at the regulation 148 degrees Fahrenheit for at least two minutes before it goes to the next step in the smoking process.

At last, the meat is ready for sale. Every Thursday, the meat lab holds a sale from 1 to 5:30 p.m. Though the sale has been happening weekly for many years, many UC Davis students haven’t heard of it. Lisa Pham, a senior exercise biology major who is graduating this summer, has come to the sale for the first time.

“Our friends came here first and told us to go,” Pham said.

Seeing the piles of packaged meat in the refrigerators, I’m struck by the amount of effort it takes to keep the operation running smoothly.

“There’s a lot of work to get a hamburger on the barbeque,” Sehnert said.

The ground beef for a juicy hamburger is only $3 per pound at the Thursday meat lab sale.

AMY STEWART can be reached at science@theaggie.org.

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