A project 11 years in the making finally got its day of celebration Nov. 6, as university personnel and students and government dignitaries gathered virtually to celebrate the opening of the new Meat Science and Animal Biologics Discovery building at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW).

The $57.1 million project started in June 2009, when industry leaders and UW alumni formed the Meat Science Advisory Board – made up of industry stakeholders – to establish a vision for the project. But the dream was born years before that.

“The project started loosely 20 years ago,” said Jeffrey Sindelar, professor and extension meat specialist in the Department of Animal and Dairy Sciences at UW. Design for another meat science building had been in the works in the early 2000s – to replace the Meat Science and Muscle Biology Laboratory building that was built in 1931, with updates in the ‘50s and ‘70s. That project was put on hold until the advisory board brought the project back to the table.

“The advisory board was originally created to help advise on the meat science program itself,” Sindelar said. “But soon after, when there was a realization that a new meat science facility could be a reality, the advisory board switched focus and started to provide some support and advice on the project. It served as a vehicle to connect with the industry.

“Some advisory board members provided input on the design – connecting with industry and finding support for the project through partnerships, philanthropy, or generating interest and ideas to support vision on the building and more importantly on the program. They were looking at what things could be done, what things should we be doing. How could the program, the building and the people in it, impact the state of Wisconsin and the industry beyond the state of Wisconsin? They were very integral in a variety of ways, and their value and impact changed over time.”

Three years later, in August 2012, the university Board of Regents approved the project and designs for the new facility were underway. But that’s when the work really began. Trying to translate a vision for the meat science program itself into a facility that can fulfill that vision takes time, input, expertise and dreaming big.

“Our vision basically was to be world leaders and train world leaders in cutting edge science and technology. Our philosophy was to dream big, but within limits,” Sindelar said. “When you start a project of this size, you grab onto the vision level and you pull hard. You try to strategically figure out how to build your vision into every thought and design decision.

“You take brilliant people who have great vision and ideas. You try to develop a way to take some of the key components that you want for the program and integrate them into the facility. We tried to align it all with the program’s vision in a way that ultimately will differentiate us from other programs in the country.”

The design phase of the project was completed in June 2016, with construction starting in early 2017.

Initially the project cost was estimated at $42.6 million – $22.6 million coming from the state of Wisconsin and $20 million from matched donations from alumni and industry stakeholders. By the completion of the project, the price tag finished at $57.1 million.

Virtual unveiling

By July 2020, the project was more or less complete and the keys to the facility were handed over. Faculty and staff finished moving in late October and some classes, with limited capacity due to the pandemic, are now being held in the lecture halls. There are still some finishing touches being worked on, but the doors are now officially open.

The virtual unveiling ceremony was held Nov. 6. Remarks were shared online by Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers; Randy Romanski, Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection Secretary-designee; Howard Marklein, Senator (District 17) and chair of the Wisconsin Senate Committee on Agriculture, Revenue and Financial Institutions; Rebecca Blank, chancellor of UW-Madison; Kate VandenBosch, dean of the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences; and Steven Ricke, Meat Science and Animal Biologics Discovery program director.

“Wisconsin has a long and proud tradition of meat production and processing,” Romanski said. “Our meat industry is a critical part of our food supply chain. Even during the COVID-19 pandemic, our livestock farmers and meat processors have never stopped working to provide the products so many of us enjoy. But in order to maintain a viable and resilient meat industry in Wisconsin in the future, we need to invest in research and innovation today. The new Meat Science and Animal Biologics Discovery Building is an exciting step forward in supporting and improving Wisconsin’s meat supply chain.”

Blank continued, “This facility is so much more than a building. It’s an ecosystem for collaboration that’s going to bring together researchers from many different fields. In partnership with industry, this building will help us develop new technologies, solve problems that industry partners bring to us.”

Mitch Monson, retail operations manager for Bucky’s Varsity Meats, shows off some of the product for sale at the retail store located in MSABD building.

Beyond a building

The new 67,540-square-foot Meat Science and Animal Biologics Discovery (MSABD) building will provide state-of-the-art teaching, research and outreach capabilities with notable sanitary design, animal handling, harvest, processing and microbial research capabilities. The building features modern offices and conference rooms and houses Bucky’s Varsity Meats retail store (formerly Bucky’s Butchery).

The new facility houses a 21,400-square-foot, USDA-inspected meat and poultry processing facility which enables harvest-to-package processing of meat and poultry products. The plant started production in late August producing sausage, bacon, ham and meat snacks that are sold to university students and personnel and the public (currently through curbside pickup) out of the Bucky’s Varsity Meats retail store.

The store, located just inside the main entrance of the building, is staffed by a full-time operations manager and will ultimately employ five to 10 part-time undergraduate students.

“This new building promises to be an excellent home for current and future scientists,” Ricke said. “We have the opportunity to build on an already strong Meat Science program, and we plan to set the standard for how to conduct research on food safety and animal biologics among our peers.”

In addition to the meat processing facility, the building is home to a separate Biosafety Level 2 (BSL-2) processing and laboratory facility for food safety research. This fully self-contained 6,530-square-foot BSL-2 facility enables pathogen introduction and intervention strategies in a setting that reproduces meat-processing methods found in commercial settings, but with food microbiology laboratory capabilities. The lab is physically separated from the rest of the adjacent building and the processing plant with a separate entrance.

“[The BSL-2 lab] will allow the industry to test pathogen control measures directly on carcasses as they are being processed,” Ricke said. “The unique laboratory, which functions so independently from the rest of the building that it actually has its own address, will give our researchers and our industry partners a strong advantage when testing new methods.”

The processing facility and lab will enable partnerships with state, national and international meat and poultry companies to work on the development of new products as well as to test pathogen elimination methods under conditions comparable to full-scale processing environments.

Another unique feature of the MSABD building is the creative design of the classrooms and lecture halls. The two lecture halls feature large windows with live audio and video feed options. Students will be able to observe instruction taking place in the adjacent, cooled, USDA-inspected meat processing space.

Approximately 60 students will be able to receive hands-on training as employees in both the processing facility and BSL-2 lab. In addition, short courses for industry members will be offered in the building starting in 2021.

The MSABD program will also continue its Wisconsin Master Meatcrafter program, an extension/outreach program to train professionals and help create new products.

The research, teaching and outreach of the MSABD program was designed to help support the state of Wisconsin’s meat industry – an industry that employs 16,250 workers with annual sales of $8.6 billion.

“I’ve been inspired by the vision established by alumni and industry leaders to expand the focus of this facility beyond studying meat as a source of food,” VandenBosch said. “They’ve challenged faculty from many disciplines to consider how to harness the potential of other life-sustaining components of meat animals. In this facility, we can examine what were once considered low-value by-products and study how these elements can help save lives. This is part of the new biologics focus of our program – and one I’m confident will continue to embolden our thinking.”