Some may say it’s beginner’s luck. However, regular customers at the University of Minnesota Meat Lab in St. Paul would say it’s about time.
In two meat competitions this winter, the U-M Meat Lab took top honors for its bratwurst, bacon and ham products.
At the Minnesota Association of Meat Processors annual convention in St. Cloud in March, the lab won the Best Bratwurst honor. And at an international meat competition in late January in Madison, Wis., the lab was awarded two gold medals for its ham and bacon products by the German Butcher's Association. The international competition received more than 460 entries from 42 companies across the U.S. As a gold medal winner, the lab employees were invited by the butchers’ association to attend a ceremony May 7 in Frankfurt to receive awards. However, they will not be able to attend.
To learn more about the meat lab, The Farmer contacted meat lab supervisor Tristan McNamara. Here are his responses to our questions:
Tell us about the meat lab — its purpose, etc.
The meat lab has three main functions: Teaching, extension and research. We act as the teaching center for animal science classes that have meat-related topics in their curriculum. We harvest animals that students have evaluated live so they can ultimately measure and grade as a carcass. This teaches students about the different breeds of animals, as well as animal husbandry, and proper animal handling practices, and how that effects meat grading and quality.
The students also are exposed to merchandising of meat animals through cutting demonstrations that illustrate exactly where on an animal that your meat comes from.
Finally, many of these courses also include a sensory portion, which allows students to taste different samples based on breed, grade and degree of cooking. This is especially helpful because it teaches students about under-utilized and under-appreciated cuts of meat. We also teach and demonstrate proper sausage making techniques, curing of meat products, and even thermal processing—cooking of meat products).
Our Extension efforts are led by Ryan Cox, associate professor in meat science. He partners with many different institutions, companies and universities to provide knowledge and insight to the public about meat. He offers HACCP classes and many other meat related courses throughout the year. We use what we know to help educate many different groups and organizations throughout the state. We can also customize courses to fit any needs for large groups.
We have many research partners in our lab. The research groups use fresh animal organs for their analysis or laboratory work with students. All of our research partners use healthy animal tissues for their studies. This means that all of our animals are utilized for both research purposes and can still be sold as retail products.
We usually have about 10 undergrad employees that work in the lab each semester. This is a part-time job for them. Most of our students are animal science or food science majors, but we are open to any and all students.
These students are led by our lead processing technician, Dallas Dornink, who is in charge of our day-to-day operations.
How long have you been meat lab supervisor? Are you an U-M graduate?
I began my meat career as an undergraduate employee in 2007 and graduated in 2009. My good friend Michael Aggen, who now owns and operates a successful meat shop in Harmony, called Oak Meadow Meats, offered me an opportunity to work in the lab while I was in school. I worked as a student employee and took a liking to the meat industry.
From there, I accepted a position after I graduated to be the lead processing technician. I worked under the tutelage of Peter Nelson. Pete owned and operated a second-generation meat shop in Lindstrom for many years before he came to the university. Pete taught me everything that there is to know about being a meat cutter/processor and how to run a business.
BEST BRATS: The U-M Meat Lab won the Best Bratwurst Competition in March at the Minnesota Association of Meat Processors annual convention in St. Cloud, Minn.
When Pete passed away in 2013, I assumed the supervisor position. Since then, we've moved our retail store and continue to look to progress as a unit.
I've had the unique opportunity to learn and work with someone like Pete from the processing side, as well as Ryan, who oversees our lab. Ryan has taught me the scientific aspects of this industry that ultimately affect what we do as meat processors.
Who came up with the award-winning meat products?
The best bratwurst competition was a team effort. We used our base sausage formulation that we use for most of our sausages and added three types of cheese and hoped for the best. We feel like it was a good product. We hope to have it in our store.
The ham and bacon products that won gold medals are old recipes and processing techniques taught to me by Pete Nelson. It makes me feel proud to be able to represent what he's taught me, but I can't take the credit.
How many meat competitions does the lab compete in annually?
These were our first competitions.
What are job prospects for students who want to get into butchering?
Our students can go on to work as inspectors, processors or really anything. Masters and Ph. D students can go on to research and development positions, quality assurance or anything that deals with meat or meat animals.
Interested in trying some of the meat lab products? Visit the St. Paul campus store, open on Wednesdays from 2-5 p.m., Room 166, Andrew Boss Laboratory of Meat Science, 1354 Eckles Ave.
Be sure to pick up some bacon. It’s the lab’s best seller.
For more information, visit ansci.umn.edu/meat-science-lab.