Thirty-one years after receiving his PhD in Bacteriology and Animal Science from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Steven C. Ricke has returned to his alma mater to run the university’s Meat Science and Animal Biologics Discovery (MSABD) program. The microbiologist and former professor of food science at the University of Arkansas will replace Dan Schaefer, PhD, former director of the MSABD program and Ricke’s PhD mentor at UW, who retired in late 2019.

“The MSABD director position was highly attractive to me because of the combination of new world-class facilities being located on the campus of one of the most highly respected academic institutions both nationally and internationally,” Ricke said. “I already knew as a Wisconsin alumnus how special UW is, and the chance to implement my research experiences and develop a vision for the MSABD program as the director was simply an opportunity I could not say no to.”

The MSABD program is a subset of the Department of Animal and Dairy Sciences at the University of Wisconsin. The university celebrated a virtual unveiling of its new MSABD building, a $57.1 million project more than 11 years in the making, on Nov. 6. The new 67,540-square-foot building will offer top-notch teaching, research and outreach capabilities featuring the latest sanitary design, animal handling, harvesting, processing and microbial research opportunities. (A feature about the new MSABD building was featured in the December issue of MEAT+POULTRY).

The building includes modern offices and conference rooms and houses Bucky’s Varsity Meats retail store (formerly Bucky’s Butchery). It also houses a 21,400-square-foot, USDA-inspected meat and poultry processing facility and a separate Biosafety Level 2 (BSL-2) processing and laboratory facility for food safety research.

Ricke and a team of visionaries at the university are working to bring an internationally renowned academic program to meat science and agriculture students at the university and beyond.

“Overall, my vision is to lead the University of Wisconsin Meat Science & Animal Biologics Discovery program as the director and build a world-class program,” Ricke said. “More specifically this means utilizing first-class research facilities to accomplish cutting-edge science that applies advanced scientific tools for solving practical problems, encourages entrepreneurship, and sets the standard for how to conduct this type of research amongst our peers.”

The Meat Science and Animal Biologics Discovery building was a $57.1 million project at the University of Wisconsin-Madison that took more than 11 years to be designed, funded and built.

Reputation for research

The opportunities for research as a part of the MSABD program are endless. Research stemming from federal grants, commodity group projects, industry-sponsored research and fee-for-service type projects are all possible at the facility. Both UW professors and students will conduct research in the new MSABD building, and industry stakeholders will be able to be involved in mutually beneficial projects.

“I have always been motivated to apply a vision of interfacing fundamental academic science with agricultural industry interests to develop cutting-edge research that has an immediate practical application and/or addresses an urgent need by the industry,” Ricke said. “I have found that some of the best science actually comes from deriving a scientific solution to a practical issue.”

The building’s new self-contained 6,350-square-foot Biosafety Level 2 laboratory provides research opportunities beyond the scope usually found in university meat science programs.

“The new Biosafety lab facility offers the ability to externally inoculate meat carcasses with known quantities of specific pathogens and track them through the entire process,” said Cindy Austin, BSL-2 operations manager. “This can be done with a wide range of meat animals and foodborne pathogens and can potentially include longitudinal studies with incoming live animals already infected with a foodborne pathogen. It was important to include this capability in our new building as there is a tremendous need to evaluate antimicrobial and processing interventions of interest to the meat industry.”

The lab features all the typical equipment contained in a meat processing plant: grinders, mixers, injectors, tumblers, a sausage stuffer, bowl chopper, vacuum packager, two smokehouses, impingement oven, kettle, griddle, combi-ovens and an intensive chilling unit.

The facility has the capabilities to allow researchers to conduct lethality, growth and sanitation studies using Listeria, Salmonella, Staphylococcus, pathogenic E. coli, Campylobacter and other pathogens.

“The Biosafety lab enables us to generate quantitative data to more accurately appraise efficacy of a particular intervention,” Austin said.

The processing facility and lab will foster 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.

“I think this is critical for me in my role as director to begin to develop potential matches between the research being conducted and the needs of the meat industry. This will not only enhance the visibility of the MSABD but lead to potential partnerships for the research outcomes that may have commercial possibilities,” Ricke said. “As this process continues my next stage is to take the same approaches to a national, and eventually an international, level to seek both academic and industry partnerships for research collaborations and funding opportunities. I plan to look for a wide range of public settings to showcase MSABD research whether it be at local commodity meetings, national scientific conference symposia, or workshops for industry.”

Top of the class

In addition to research opportunities, the MSABD program offers students a range of courses that go well beyond “Meat Science 101.” The building’s two lecture halls feature large windows with live audio and video feed options which allow students to observe instruction taking place in the adjacent, cooled, USDA-inspected meat processing space.

However, this year’s COVID-19 restrictions prevented a number of classes from being held in the new MSABD building in the fall semester, including many laboratory class options.

One lecture offered in the fall was presented by Wei Guo, PhD, one of the newest members of the MSABD faculty. The class titled, “Animal Growth and Development” discussed animal growth and development from a single cell to a whole animal.

One of the unique features of the MSABD building is its lecture halls which allow students to observe instruction in a cooled, meat processing space attached to the classroom.

“From regulatory factors such as nutrients, hormones and genetics to gut microbes influencing prenatal and postnatal growth and development, this course does a deep-dive into the relationships among growth, composition and meat quality,” Guo said. “Students will come away with the knowledge and ability to improve the growth rate of domestic animals and to increase carcass quality and meat production.”

In the spring, students can take the first laboratory-based course offered in the new building – “Introduction to Meat Science and Technology,” taught by James Claus, PhD. Through lecture and lab, students will get a look at the science and technology used in the industry. Course topics include basic meat ultrastructure, muscle biochemistry, nutritive value of meat and food safety in processing environments. Red meat and poultry harvest, carcass fabrication, fish processing and further meat processing will also be demonstrated in the attached processing space.

While most of the MSABD classes target animal and dairy science majors, “The Art of Entrepreneurship in Animal Biologics Discovery” course is hoping to attract students from across campus including marketing and business majors. The class will “offer students the opportunity to explore how one goes from conceptualization of an idea that blossoms out of keen scientific observation to product development and marketing.”

The MSABD program intends to reach beyond the University of Wisconsin borders with its extension programs. When COVID-19 restrictions are lifted, extension courses ranging from short seminars to multiple-day events will be offered in the new facility.

Dillon Walker is the operations manager of the 21,400-square-foot, USDA-inspected meat processing plant located in the MSABD building.

“Programming themes for extension courses will include a variety of core, specialized, and advanced areas including basic-to-advanced meat science, meat processing and food safety topics while being steeped with the newest technological advancements, scientific knowledge and practical applications,” said Jeffrey Sindelar, professor and extension meat specialist in the Department of Animal and Dairy Sciences at UW. “A science-to-practice approach will be a core delivery method when appropriate.”

Extension courses in meat processing, food safety, thermal processing and technology advancements will be available to members of the Wisconsin meat industry, national and international meat and poultry processing companies and consumers – including youth – who are interested in learning about the wholesomeness, safety and dietary value of meat.