Go behind the scenes at the MSU Meat Lab

Michigan State University’s on-campus meat processing facility makes local meat within reach for dining halls, athletic events, catering and collaborations.
msu meat lab crew shows how to cut meat
The MSU meat lab crew shows how to cut meat.| Photos courtesy of Tara Fitzpatrick

When Assistant Manager Ryan Varner describes cattle as having “rear-wheel drive,” light bulbs blink on above visiting chefs’ heads: Those muscles do the most work, so those cuts of beef are bigger, heavier and tougher. Rear for locomotion, front for stabilization. The front has smaller pieces that cook up better.  

“You can be an amazing chef but not have any idea where stuff comes from,” says Jennifer Dominguez, manager at the Michigan State University (MSU)’s Meat Lab.

chefs tour the msu meat lab
At FSD's 2024 Big Ten Chefs Immersion conference, chefs from universities across the country ended their immersion experience with a chilly-but-fascinating tour of host university MSU’s Meat Lab

Education is just part of the meat-related work being done every day in the cavernous, perpetually chilly building, which includes a big cutting area where carcasses are broken down, two abbatoirs, curing and cooking areas, a smokehouse and classrooms, about 20,000 square feet in all. Several courses in meat science are offered through MSU’s departments of Animal Science and Food Science/Human Nutrition. Research into meat science is also conducted here, and the time-honored tradition of the meat judging program, organized through the American Meat Science Association.

And the Meat Lab is well-known on campus for its collaborations with the MSU Dining, providing dining halls with beef and pork products (and a smaller amount of chicken), including burger patties, blended burgers, meaty snacks, charcuterie boards, “Sparty Franks” and brats for sporting events and specialty cuts for events in the Kellogg’s State Room, a higher-end hotel restaurant and meeting spot on campus.

Campus collaborations

At a time when “locally sourced” is becoming more and more important to the sustainability movement, the Meat Lab really takes ownership of that advantage.

“There is a considerable push to utilize a more local approach to sustainable operations,” Dominguez says. “The footprint for the meat products used in the dining halls and State Room are micro in comparison to the past approach used. Additionally, through the entire process, students benefit from the hands-on learning that goes into each section of the process. And also, the dining team gets a very good, fresh product.”

In one collaboration, the Meat Lab worked with MSU’s allergen-safe dining hall, Thrive, to create a gluten-free chicken strip. In another, blended burger patties added a plant-forward-but-meat-inclusive option in the dining halls.

When the Meat Lab began working with grad students on a fundraising project, “we struggled finding a good fundraiser that wasn’t going to be a safety concern, so we decided to make MSU soap from pig fat," Dominguez says. "Artisan soap that’s made the real way with melted fat and lye. They came up with six different soaps, and they sold out.”

meat lab manager
MSU Meat Lab Manager Jennifer Dominguez leads a tour of the facility with a no-nonsense approach, taking a group of chefs into the cutting room.

Carving a career path

Dominguez followed her older sisters’ footsteps in coming to work at the Meat Lab when she started college at MSU. After that, she went on to work in the big meat industry for five years and for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) for another five years. Having grown up on her family farm in Michigan, Dominguez has that “4H kid” point of view and understanding that meat is for harvesting. She acknowledges that not everyone shares that sensibility and there can be a learning curve for student employees.

“Some of the kids do come from a farm background, so they may take those skills back with them, but mostly we’re taking in kids that don’t have a lot of animal experience and didn’t grow up on a farm, but we’re teaching them how to show up for a job, skills to take them to their next job and into their life, like project management.”

Student employees at the Meat Lab get hands-on training. There’s really no other way to learn this stuff, Dominguez says. “They work beside us to learn good job skills to take with them when they graduate. Some people say, ‘Don’t look at me while I’m doing something,’ but they have to get over that really fast.”

Being the type of facility it is, food safety is the first priority when training any employee, Dominguez says. “Everybody learns how to clean. It doesn’t matter if you’re a undergrad or a PhD; if you don’t start out clean in the morning, we can’t start the day. They are also responsible for sanitation and working with USDA inspectors on a daily basis.”

Learning to break down carcasses begins with a pig, rather than a steer, since it’s a smaller (and cheaper) animal. “And we are not under time constraints, so high-speed is taken out of the equation,” Dominguez adds. “We don’t let our student employees get into any dangerous situations. They’re given safety gear to use with knives and we remind them to cut away from themselves and always pay attention to their surroundings.”

It's not a boring job, that’s for sure. “Every day is different and every carcass is different,” Dominguez says. “It’s never boring but it’s hard work; you saw those chucks.Those can be 200 pounds and it’s freezing cold, usually between 37 and 39 degrees, with the fan on. We bundle up when we go in. 40 degrees is not too cold if you’re moving. And there’s nothing better than some pulled pork out of the smokehouse at the end of the day.”



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