If the purpose of the Meat Industry Supplier Association Foundation Scholarship is to help a student pursue a career in the meat industry, it would be hard to find a better poster child than Jay Wenther, Ph.D., director of meat technology for Handtmann Inc. in Lake Forest, Illinois. The firm makes vacuum fillers, automated linkers and a variety of other processing equipment for the meat, food, pet food and bakery industries.
Wenther grew up in western Iowa and eastern Nebraska, and decided at an early age that he wanted to have a career in the meat industry. “My family was involved in agriculture, but not in the meat industry. We had a crop farm near Jackson, Nebraska, just across the river from Iowa. But while going to the Univ. of Nebraska, I began working part time at the Loeffel Meat Lab and also interned with John Morrell & Co. and IBP during two consecutive summers.” He also met Roger Mandigo, emeritus professor of animal science at the Univ. of Nebraska, and as it turned out, Mandigo and the internships pushed him in the direction of meat processing – “not only in animal science agriculture, but specifically to meat science.”
“Animal science is like an umbrella of an education pathway. People take that course of education and then can move into more specific areas, like meat science, nutritional science, breeding and genetics, and some people decide to go to veterinary school. But I was interested in meat processing, so my direction was meat science.”
Also pushing him into the direction of a career in the meat processing industry was receiving the MISA Scholarship halfway through college. “Dr. Mandigo knew about the scholarship, and that it would be a great help for me,” Wenther says. “Any kind of financial assistance helps, of course. But that’s not all of it. Getting financial help like that helps you focus on what you need to be focused on – your studies – and not worrying all the time about how you’re going to pay for everything. As you know, it costs a lot to go to school. It also helps you focus on what you’re most interested in, not thinking about the costs all the time,” he points out.
After completing his undergraduate studies, Wenther decided to go even deeper into the academic study of meat processing by pursuing a master’s in meat science at the Univ. of Nebraska, and became the assistant meat lab manager, where he supervised students who did the same jobs he once did. He also became a teaching assistant for undergraduate classes, a research technician who helped commercial meat processors in the state with product development, and taught a collegiate meat judging team.
After receiving his master’s, Wenther decided to pursue his doctorate degree at Iowa State Univ., working first with Dennis Olson, formerly professor of animal science, food science and human nutrition, in a dual program of meat science/food science and technology. When Olson stepped down from his role, Wenther worked under the guidance of Joseph Cordray, professor of animal science at ISU. “One of the great things about getting the BS and then the advanced degrees is you surround yourself with these great people, who give you good direction toward your career,” Wenther says. “When I worked at the meat lab, I was thinking to myself, ‘Is this just work, a job, or is this maybe something I could consider as a career?’” He graduated in August 2003. In addition to doing extensive research for his Ph.D., he participated in short courses and workshops in processed meat production, fresh meat fabrication, product marketing and food safety. “Pretty much everything in the meat industry,” he says.
After earning his doctorate, Wenther moved East and began a 10-year stint at the American Association of Meat Processors (AAMP), a trade association representing small and very small processors in the industry. He began as director of science and technology, became assistant executive director and then the association’s executive director. He left AAMP three-and-a-half years ago to go back to the Midwest, working with Handtmann Inc.
“The people in the association were great and I really enjoyed working with them. I eventually realized that the work in a trade association, especially in the food industry, focuses on the regulatory and legislative side, particularly on food safety. And that’s not surprising, because that’s the most critical concern for food processors, and that’s what the association is there for, particularly when your members are small businesses.
“But eventually, I realized I wanted to get back into the processing side of the industry. That’s what I really wanted to do. I wanted to work with the processors on the issues they have to deal with as processors.” At Handtmann, he first started managing the Arthur Handtmann Technical Center, where Handtmann technology is tested to see how it functions with processors’ products. “A lot of people think I just deal with meat, but that’s not true,” he points out. “About 70 percent of my work is with meat, but 15 percent is other types of food products, and 15 percent is pet treats. That’s a growing area of our business,” he says.
Wenther travels a great deal, about half his time is spent doing application work across the US. “The work is challenging – and it’s not just about meat. I love working with people and new meat processing technology, and that’s what a lot of this is. Our customers have great expectations, and it’s our job to meet them. Every day is something different – customers and the applications they are pursuing.”
The future? “Who knows? I love working for Handtmann Inc. and what I am currently doing. Even though I have my Ph.D., and I was a grad assistant, I’ve always been focused on non-academic areas in the meat industry,” Wenther explains. “Some people really want to teach and do it extremely well. For me, I like what I’m doing very much.”