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Lab class: Students learn to process meat

WSU, Blue Mountain College and Chico State provide professional experience.

Heather Smith Thomas

April 25, 2024

7 Min Read
Carcass judging
Washington State University students attend a carcass judging event.Blake Foraker/Washington State University

Meat labs and classes at colleges and universities around the country contribute to our future livestock industry by preparing students for careers in this important aspect of food production.

There are several good programs here in the West that provide this opportunity for students. Here are some examples.


Washington State University in Pullman, Wash., has a program in which cattle raised at the university’s Beef Center can be utilized for teaching students about raising and caring for beef animals, and meat processing. The beef program produces Angus and Wagyu, marketed as WSU Premium Beef and WSU Premium Wagyu. Built in the early 1970’s, the 16,000-square-foot WSU meat laboratory also serves the needs of local customers with custom slaughter and fabrication services. 

Students experience all phases of meat processing. Blake Foraker, Ph.D. Assistant Professor in Meat Science, Department of Animal Sciences, teaches the Meat Science class which involves conversion of a live animal into a meat product. 

“The class includes a lab session every week; we may harvest cattle or talk about temperature and pH decline or cut up and fabricate carcasses or do yield tests or cook steaks and talk about sensory evaluation, consumers and their perceptions of meat products,” he says.

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“I also teach a livestock and carcass evaluation class (beef, pork and lamb). We evaluate live animals, talk about fat deposition, muscle growth, breed differences that pertain to value differences in our industry, etc. and go through pricing exercises of live animals and their carcasses.”

The animals are harvested on a Tuesday session, and students look at carcasses on Thursday. 

“They do this for 12 weeks in the semester, split equally among the three species,” he says. “The students have a lab session as part of their exam.

“They are required to take measurements of a rib-eye on a carcass or estimate fat thickness on a pig, much like they would do if they were a buyer of fat cattle or hogs.  This is one of my favorite courses to teach,” says Foraker. It involves many things the students might do in the industry later. Near the end of the semester the students tour a packing plant and a large cattle feeding operation.

He teaches a Careers in Animal Science class for juniors, and coaches the meat judging team, and teaches advanced meat evaluation. 

“Our competitive team travels to national contests,” Foraker says. “This exposes our students to other meat labs in universities across the country and to packing plants to prepare for these competitive events.  We had 11 students on that team last spring and all of them are now in vet school or involved in the industry—such as cattle feeding operations.”

On the Extension side, he works with youth through 4-H, and with Ag teachers and FFA, providing educational opportunities in meat evaluation. 

“We do meat judging clinics and contests at our University Meat Lab,” he says.

Dan Snyder manages the Meat Lab and has worked there for 38 years. 

“He is the most experienced, knowledgeable and proficient meat cutter I know. We process about 500 head of livestock each year, which includes cattle, hogs, sheep and goats.  We did about 200 cattle this past year. Dan employs 5 to 7 students per semester and they learn what goes on in a processing facility,” says Foraker.

“We also provide meat for the local Muslim community. A leader in the Islam faith comes in to process those according to the needs of Halal slaughter. We also do processing for local Fairs and have a carcass show for the Fair.”

The Meat Lab has a new retail store.

 “Meat processing is expensive, so we recover some of the costs by merchandizing some of our meat products through this retail store,” he says.

Blue Mountain College

The Meat Science Lab at Blue Mountain Community College in Pendleton, Ore., is a modern processing facility built in 2016. An integral part of the Ag classes is first-hand experience in breeding, raising, and processing animals. This experience provides understanding of how animal genetics, nutrition, and handling aid in achieving a finished product. The Meat Science Lab also accepts custom processing orders from the public.  Cattle, swine, sheep, and goats can be processed in this facility.

In 2023, BMCC received a $300,000 grant from the Oregon State University Extension Service to expand the meat science program and hire a Meat Lab Manager. This is part of a collaborative, multi-state program lead by OSU Extension’s Niche Meat Processor Assistance Network (NMPAN) to help solve workforce issues in Oregon and the Pacific Northwest. The funds are part of a larger grant through the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (USDA-NIFA) Meat and Poultry Processing Agricultural Workforce Training Program.

BMCC is working with OSU Extension’s NMPAN team to design a certification program to help address the shortage of entry-level employees in the meat processing industry and fill the gap in meat-cutting training, an opportunity that only a few colleges and universities offer across the nation.

Chico State

The Meats Laboratory at California State University, Chico is a federally-inspected processing facility, serving multiple purposes within the College of Agriculture and University Farm. Students learn all facets of the meat industry through hands-on experience while producing a safe, high-quality product. 

Livestock raised by other units at the University Farm for educational purposes are purchased by the Meats Lab to be harvested, processed, and sold by students under supervision of USDA and a staff meats technician.

Haydn Clement is involved with this lab and says there are other meat labs in California and throughout the country at various colleges and universities—to instruct students on current meat practices. 

“Chico State is special, however, because we are 100% student-run,” Clement says. “I am the only person who is not a student, but I’m a former student.”

He has four employees in paid positions who put in 20 hours a week. 

“They must complete an apprenticeship of 80-some hours during a semester,” Clement says. “They come in whenever they have time, according to their schedule for school and other jobs, and learn as much as they can here at the lab.”

The students start out packaging and cleaning. 

“Sanitation is crucial,” he explains. “Since we are USDA inspected we have rigorous sanitation protocols and programs. The interns help with this, and packaging our products.  Then I put a knife in their hand and they start trimming tri tips, and move on to cutting pork chop steaks and eventually help us break whole beef carcasses.

“We take in animals raised in the beef, sheep and swine units. We get a fresh batch of pigs about every 6 weeks as they grow up. The swine unit raises and sells high-dollar show pigs but any that aren’t show potential, or the wrong time of year, are fed out and brought to us,” says Clement. 

“We produce 25 flavors of sausage and 5 varieties of bacon and ham and create many value-added products,” says Clement. Popular product are jerky and snack sticks.  Products of the University Farm are also sold wholesale to local restaurants.

“We help a few local ranchers, processing their animals for farmers’ markets or to sell direct.  One customer ships to folks who order online. Many producers take advantage of our value-added products. There are only so many steaks, and a lot of ground beef.  Rather than having to sell 500 pounds of ground beef, our customers might turn 200 pounds of it into fresh sausage and another 100 pounds into snack sticks.”

The students run the lab and enjoy helping the customers and meeting their needs, answering questions, talking about recipes, etc. They see the whole process. 

“Some universities specialize in snack sticks and might produce 600 pounds of snack sticks every week, but that’s all the student is doing, for the whole semester. In our lab, on Monday we broke 4 hindquarters of beef, today we did 3 hogs and tomorrow we’ll make sausage, on Thursday we’ll make ham and bacon and on Friday we’ll make jerky and snack sticks,” he says. Students get a well-rounded exposure to the processing industry.

“Two of my students are now USDA meat inspectors, one is starting his own custom butcher shop, one is managing a new facility in Nevada, another is working for a teriyaki sauce company doing recipes and formulations. Another student is passionate about communications and marketing and I’ve turned over our social media, sales and advertisement to her. Whatever a student is passionate about, there is a spot for that person in the industry,” he says. 

As employees of the Meats Lab, students graduate with not only a degree but a strong resume, demonstrating skills and knowledge of the meat industry, marketing, customer service, and federal food safety regulations. This experience makes them desirable to employers as they enter the workforce.

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