Iowa State University’s Department of Animal Science celebrates 100 years of meat science in November when current and retired faculty, alumni and students will gather to recognize one of the country’s first land-grant meat science programs.
It began with construction of Iowa State’s first meat laboratory in 1917. In the decades since, the program and its faculty, housed in the Meats Lab, now connected to Kildee Hall, have become well-known for leadership in teaching and extension, such as its student meat judging teams and popular short courses. The program’s research has also had — and continues to have — significant impact on the meat industry in this country and around the world.
“Few people appreciate how profoundly our research has influenced the industry and consumers,” said Donald Beermann, chair of the Department of Animal Science and a 1971 alum. “Areas we have helped pioneer include meat biochemistry, basic meat science and related technologies to enhance food quality, development of processed meat technologies, research and computer modeling on food safety to prevent spoilage and extend shelf life, and discovery of important genetic markers.”
“Our meat science program’s history of collaboration and multidisciplinary science has long been supported by the close relationships and communication we have developed with livestock producers and the industry,” said Elisabeth Huff-Lonergan, professor of animal science and alum in meat science and muscle biology.
As the meat science program marks its work over time and looks to the future, current and emeritus faculty and alums reflected on some of the most notable historical research contributions, sharing the following examples:
Tenderness. ISU meat scientists identified the calcium-activated meat factor known as calpain, which helps determine tenderness. This linchpin discovery tying together basic muscle biochemistry with meat quality is attributed to the research of alumnus D.E. Goll that started in the 1960s. Related research continues by current meat science faculty members Elisabeth Huff-Lonergan and Steven Lonergan, also a meat science alum.
Meat quality. Meat palatability is not simply improved as levels of fat and marbling increase, but depends on the distribution and composition of fat, a conclusion informed by ISU studies in the 1970s that used professional and consumer panels. The finding has helped set the stage for a leaner, healthier product for consumers. The search to understand what does determine meat quality, from the molecular level all the way to the packaged product in the grocery store, continues to be the focus of research by Elisabeth Huff-Lonergan and Steven Lonergan.
Genetic marker linked to stress syndrome. Landmark ISU research in the 1980s by David Topel, emeritus professor of animal science and former dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and Lauren Christian, a distinguished professor, identified porcine stress syndrome (PSS), a muscle metabolism condition that was becoming more common at the time. The team discovered a genetic marker linking stress-related mortality and poor meat quality to highly muscled animals. Their work influenced the industry worldwide and encouraged improvements in animal handling.
More consistent meat grading. Bringing objectivity to the USDA beef grading program owes much of its origin to Iowa State. In 1980, Iowa State brought the meat science community together to strategize on use of cameras and computer software technology to replace the human eye as a more consistent method for assessing official quality grades to beef, such as USDA Choice and Prime, according to Craig Morris, a 1992 animal science alumnus, who served in the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service over the beef grading program for two decades, including when these instruments were officially adopted in 2008. Dr. Morris, now vice president of international marketing for the National Pork Board, said, “Iowa State was ahead of its time in introducing this idea and leading the industry towards its eventual adoption nationally as standard procedure.”
Irradiation for food safety. ISU installed one of the first linear accelerators for food irradiation research in 1992, with funding from the U.S. Department of Energy and the state of Iowa. Dennis Olson led the work to study the technology’s potential to extend shelf life and eliminate pathogens, viruses and parasites in meat, poultry and other foods.
Beneficial micronutrients improve meat tenderness. Research on supplementing livestock feed with nutrients, such as Vitamin D, to improve meat tenderness has been conducted by Huff-Lonergan and Donald Beitz since the late 1990s. Related research continues, looking at other micronutrients that can benefit animal health and improve meat products.
Meat safety modeling. ISU meat scientists have developed a number of process technologies that have profoundly influenced product safety practices in the industry. This includes research by Jim Dickson, professor of animal science, who modeled the probability of salmonellae growth on meat carcasses under a variety of cooling conditions. His work has resulted in an inexpensive technology process, now patented, which even small processing plants can use to limit occurrence of pathogens.
New-generation preservatives. Joe Sebranek, distinguished professor and the Morrison Endowed Chair in Meat Science, and Rodrigo Tarté, assistant professor of animal science and an ISU meat science alum, are at the forefront of research to develop plant-based ingredients — such as celery powder with naturally high levels of nitrate — as effective preservatives that can discourage pathogens and extend shelf life of meat products. The research is a response to consumer desire for more “clean label” and natural products.
One of the most influential outputs of meat science at Iowa State has been its short courses, where the latest in animal and food science and technology has been introduced to professionals working in the industry. The trainings, embodying Iowa State’s motto, “science with practice,” were introduced by professor Robert Rust in the 1970s and have been led since 1995 by Joseph Cordray, Smithfield Chair in Meat Extension and professor of animal science.
The combination of research, extension and teaching is why Iowa State has long been considered the go-to place for continuing education in meat science in this country and internationally. This 100-year-old history informs a new online graduate certificate in meat science introduced this year to expand opportunities for working students.
“We have a lot to be proud of, in terms of our contributions to science and the industry,” says Sebranek, who has conducted meat research and taught in the department for more than 40 years. “But I think our most important product has been and will continue to be our graduates. Many have gone on to important roles in industry and government agencies, and they’ve become researchers and faculty members here and elsewhere. They all are an extension of our program. They are really what we’re here for.”
Iowa State will recognize the Meat Science Program’s 100th anniversary with a reception and banquet, Nov. 1, at the Gateway Hotel and Conference Center, and an open house, Nov. 2, at the Farm Bureau Pavilion (the original Meat Laboratory) and the current Meat Laboratory.