KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Though I have been writing about the meat industry off and on for more than 10 years I don’t have a background in the meat or agriculture industry. My previous exposure to meat came exclusively from the customer side of the butcher counter, and the only meat cutting I had done was at home in my kitchen when trimming a little extra fat off a pork chop or steak.
While putting together an article on “industry education” for the upcoming April issue of MEAT+POULTRY about some of the great learning opportunities available to the meat industry (in the case of the April article I focused on programs Texas A&M Univ. has to offer — future articles will feature other universities around the country), I remembered the crash course in meat cutting that I was given in December 2013 at Texas A&M’s infamous Beef 101 course.
I’m not sure what I expected when I signed up, but when I left I felt like I had a better understanding of what it takes to put meat on my table, and what the producers and processors who read MEAT+POULTRY go through to supply beef to consumers of the world — as they say, from farm to fork.
My classmates were from different segments of the meat industry — foodservice, processing, ingredient supply, packers, even a consumer who competed in barbecue competitions. We all had one thing in common — we all wanted to learn more about beef. And that we did.
Our 2 ½ day course started with a live look at beef cattle (when I say live look, I mean we got to look the animals in the eye). We learned about fed-beef cattle evaluation and tried our hands at making visual estimates of carcass traits. We also learned about beef cattle growth and the factors affecting leanness. Then we said goodbye to our animals (literally said goodbye) and were off to the Rosenthal Meat Science and Technology Center where we got a live slaughter and harvest demonstration. Seeing a live slaughter is an eye-opening experience if you’ve never seen one before — one minute you’re looking at a live animal, the next it’s hanging on a chain bleeding out. But the students (yes, this is a job for the meat science students at A&M) handled the process professionally and humanely. At the end of our demonstration the animals were hanging sides of beef on their way to the cooler for the night.
On Day Two, the beef cattle we met on our first day were ready to be cut into primals and subprimals in the fabrication lab, which was where the hands-on training began. Thankfully, we were not left to our own devices or else a lot of tasty and valuable beef would have been wasted. We were closely guided by grad students and instructors as we spent hours in the lab cutting beef forequarters into beef wholesale cuts. This is hard work — it took our group of four hours to break down our portion. It’s amazing to appreciate how fast beef operations performed these same tasks day in and day out. Although we didn’t get to take any of the beef cuts home, we were rewarded with a prime-rib dinner that night.
On Day Three, we completed our training with discussions about beef palatability, in addition to some hands-on (or mouths-on) taste testing. Though we’re not sensory evaluation experts, we tried to tell the difference between aged and non-aged beef, grain vs. grass-fed beef and different grades and cuts of beef — which isn’t easy to do.
When my 2 ½ days in College Station, Texas, were complete, I truly felt like I was leaving with an expanded knowledge on the beef side of the meat industry. The meat-science staff at Texas A&M have put together an impressive comprehensive program that would truly benefit anyone with involvement in any aspect of the meat industry. There’s no wonder the program is still going strong after more than 25 years. (For more information on Beef 101, go to www.animalscience.tamu.edu)