Geiss Meat Service in Merrill, Wisconsin, has been butchering livestock for farmers in Lincoln County and surrounding areas since 1956, cutting about 6,000 pounds of beef a day—that’s an average of eight to 10 beef cattle—into fresh steaks, chops, loins and roasts. But when third-generation owner Andrew Geiss took over the company in 2005, he was ready to try something new.
“I wanted to figure out a way to build up a retail business by expanding our sausage line,” he says. “I thought there was more money to be made by diversifying our products.” He added a smokehouse and started taking basic meat science classes at CALS—and soon discovered a satisfaction in crafting his own specialty meats that meat cutting alone couldn’t provide.
“There’s a lot of pride and art that goes into it. For instance, getting that perfectly round shape and uniformity in color when making a ham,” says Geiss. “You can’t imagine how much one thing in the smokehouse—for example, the humidity levels—changes everything, and how much work is involved.”
But the business side wasn’t going as well as he had hoped. “Honestly, I was at a point where we needed to make some serious changes with the consistency of our products in order to please customers and expand sales,” he says.
He found exactly the help he needed in 2010, when he was accepted into the inaugural class of the Master Meat Crafter training program at CALS. He and his classmates—16 men and one woman from small meat operations all around the state—traveled to Madison regularly over the course of two years for rigorous, hands-on instruction in meat science and processing, covering such areas as fresh meats, fermented and cured meats, cooked and emulsified sausage and meat microbiology and food safety.
That training earned Geiss the right to use the formal designation of Master Meat Crafter. But even more than the title, the program gave him the skills he needed to improve the quality, yields and markup on his products. “Now we’re doing a ton of different kinds of sausages, and everything is turning out just perfectly,” he reports. “And I don’t have to second-guess anything. I know that everything is exactly the way that I want it to be, and it turns out the same every time.”
The industry already has taken note of his improvements. Last summer Geiss Meat Service entered products for the first time in the American Cured Meat Championships and won awards in four categories, including first place in cooked ring bologna.
But even seasoned meat crafters see the value of the master course. The debut class included Louis E. Muench, a third-generation sausage maker who was inducted into the Wisconsin Meat Industry Hall of Fame in 2009. Since 1970, Louie’s Finer Meats in Cumberland has been crafting ham, bacon, bologna, breakfast links, salami, summer sausage and dozens of other products—and winning more than 300 state, national and international awards for their quality. Its creative staff also designs an extraordinary assortment of bratwurst, including applewurst, bacon cheeseburger, blueberry, pumpkin pie and wild rice and mushroom.
Why would someone with that level of expertise be interested in going back to school? “There’s so much technology that changes every day,” Muench says. As examples he cites new antimicrobials developed to combat foodborne pathogens and new government food safety, labeling and operations-related regulations, including changes that will for the first time allow Wisconsin’s state-inspected small processors to sell across state borders. “For our business to succeed in the long run, we need to keep current on everything and try to pass on as much knowledge as we can to keep the quality and the food safety up,” says Muench.
Within a year of completing the program, Muench had encouraged his son Louis and his brother William to sign up with the next group of students.
That’s the kind of success that the Master Meat Crafter program’s key partners—CALS, UW-Extension, the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) and the Wisconsin Association of Meat Processors (WAMP)—envisioned when they determined that state-of-the-art training was needed to take the state’s specialty meat production to an even higher level.
Program director Jeff Sindelar, a CALS professor of animal sciences and UW-Extension meat specialist, designed it to be like an academic postgraduate program that would benefit even the most skilled and experienced artisans. In both structure and intent, the new program mirrors the Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker program run by the Center for Dairy Research at CALS, which was a key player in turning Wisconsin’s specialty cheese business into a globally acclaimed leader that today accounts for more than 20 percent of Wisconsin’s total cheese production, up from a mere 4 percent in the 1990s.
The Master Meat Crafter program’s success will be measured over the long haul, says Sindelar: “It’s which of these plants will grow, add on, which plants are going to pass along the business, whether to family members or to other people who can continue the name. It’s really about longevity and viability of the industry.
“We look at building leaders, at providing them with information that they didn’t have otherwise, making them stronger advocates for the industry,” says Sindelar. “We’re trying to use our knowledge, expertise and facilities on this campus to help people grow and succeed.”
Wisconsin may best be known as America’s Dairyland, but the state has long been home to a thriving meat industry as well. Only 27 states have small, state-inspected meat plants, and Wisconsin has more than any other: about 375 processors and locker shops.
“These state-inspected meat plants are located mostly in small towns and rural areas where they provide food, jobs and services that are critical to the local farms and families, from harvesting livestock to dressing venison and other game meats,” says Jeff Swenson, the state’s livestock and meat specialist at DATCP. Together with more than 120 large, federally inspected plants, they’re part of the state’s $12.3 billion meat and poultry industry, which employs 19,000 people directly and 88,000 people in allied fields.
“We have a unique meat-eating and meat industry culture in Wisconsin,” says Jeff Sindelar, noting that it is rare to find so many aspects of the industry so well integrated in a single state.
“When you look at Wisconsin in terms of the total package, we raise animals—we’re a big agriculture state. We harvest the animals; three of the largest beef packers in the country have processing plants in Wisconsin. We have an array of very notable further processors such as Johnsonville Sausage, Oscar Mayer and Jack Link’s,” he says. “Then we have this huge array of small processors that a lot of people consider specialty shops. And we have a fairly significant level of interest from chefs, from the retail sector.” People in that last group, Sindelar says, are ordering and even beginning to produce their own custom meat products.
The field may be diverse, but the solidarity is strong. “It’s a really tight-knit industry,” observes Kevin Ladwig, a vice president at Johnsonville Sausage, which started out in 1945 as a small butcher shop and now employs 1,300 people in Sheboygan Falls and sells sausages in more than 30 countries. “Regardless of the size and shape of your business, everyone wants the same thing, which is to keep the industry healthy. I don’t care if you’re a large, well-known multinational or a small corner sausage shop or locker plant, we’re all in this together.”
And consumers are on board as well. Wisconsin’s meat eaters have an appetite not found in every state. In addition to cheering on their favorite Klement’s Famous Racing Sausage mascot at Miller Park, Milwaukee Brewers fans consumed 900,000 of the five million sausages eaten at all Major League ballparks in 2012, according to the American Meat Institute—and that’s not even counting hot dogs.
And just as the Racing Sausage mascots drafted a Chorizo character in 2006 to join the previous lineup of Bratwurst, Polish Sausage, Italian Sausage and Hot Dog, both processors and customers are excited to try new flavors and recipes.
“There’s no way that the small meat industry would survive in a lot of states because there isn’t that consumer support,” says Sindelar. “We have the consumers and the population to support the drive for new and unique foods.”
While Wisconsin has long produced specialty meats, the Master Meat Crafters title and a new, shield-shaped “Specialty Meats of Wisconsin” logo—offered through the Specialty Meat Development Center at DATCP—are part of a new effort to brand them, a step inspired by the successful marketing of the artisanal cheese industry over the past 18 years.
“The Master Cheesemaker program and the marketing of the artisanal cheese industry have been very, very successful,” notes DATCP Secretary Ben Brancel. “It has elevated our cheese industry to be renowned not only in the United States but also around the world. And I think that will be true of the meat industry as well.”
Swenson is working at DATCP to promote the state’s meat processors through a variety of channels including social media, the Discover Wisconsin TV show and website, and an interactive map on DATCP’s website that allows users to pinpoint the closest specialty meats purveyor (follow the links at http://go.wisc.edu/4rf5xz).
Wisconsin’s small processors currently produce 77 million pounds of product a year, according to DATCP’s Food Safety Division. Given access to larger markets and more diverse consumer groups, predicts Brancel, “You will see an explosion of new products coming out of these small plants.”
Changes in regulations are helping pave the way for growth. As noted, a new pilot program will allow some of the smaller state-inspected plants to take advantage of a change in the federal interstate sales regulations and for the first time begin selling their products outside of Wisconsin, including in Chicago and the Twin Cities.
While there’s an art to creating great meat products, there’s also a lot of science. Understanding the ingredients—muscle and other animal tissues—is a lesson in applied biology. To be able to convert those ingredients into world-class sausage and sliceable meats that are appealing, flavorful and pathogen-free, and to keep them that way during packaging and shipping, a 21st-century meat crafter has to be part biochemist, part microbiologist and part engineer. And as the industry eyes emerging markets outside of the food business, expertise in such areas as human health and pharmacology could be a plus.
The need to train a new generation of science-savvy meat industry leaders is one reason that UW-Madison plans to construct a $42.8 million livestock and poultry products laboratory. The new facility, half of which will be paid for by private funds, will feature state-of-the-art pilot plants—small-scale versions of the set-ups used by today’s most advanced meat processing firms—where scientists and their students can study every angle of meat quality and safety.
The lab will also allow researchers to explore opportunities to create new, high-value non-food products for use in human and veterinary medicine, among other applications. And, through the Master Meat Crafter program and many other programs for students and professionals alike, the lab will serve to educate the innovators who are creating new products and growing the meat industry.
“This will be the most advanced building of its kind when it’s completed,” notes Dan Schaefer, professor and chair of the Department of Animal Sciences.
The new facility is important to the state of Wisconsin, says Ben Brancel, from the perspective of faculty recruitment, graduate employment and programs that benefit the meat-loving public: “It will provide us with a whole new industry that’s prepared for the future.”
The state’s meat industry concurs. “It’s critical that we do this,” says Johnsonville’s Kevin Ladwig, who chairs a committee of business leaders who are helping raise funds for the project. Regardless of size, the some 500 meat plants in Wisconsin rely on the university for education, for consultation when problems arise and for leadership on the ideas and trends they should be paying attention to in the future. “Without facilities that are modern and updated, the fear is that we’re going to lose that leadership role,” says Ladwig.
As the industry moves forward, food safety continues to be a huge concern—and an integral part of all equipment and manufacturing demonstrations, meat-crafting conversations and the industry’s operations protocols, says Jeff Sindelar. “It’s where the most research dollars in post-harvest animal agriculture are invested today,” he says. “All but one of my research projects are either entirely focused on food safety or have a significant food safety component.”
UW-Madison is home to one of the world’s foremost food safety research programs, and the new meat products lab will give it a one-of-a-kind research facility: an “isolatable” biosafety level-2 laboratory equipped with safeguards required to introduce microbes that cause the nastiest foodborne illnesses. It will be a proving ground for strategies to detect and eliminate pathogens in the kind of setting found in a commercial food plant.
In its never-ending quest to explore new markets, the meat industry is looking beyond the meat case and, in fact, outside of the grocery store. One of the most promising areas for both research and industry growth involves the parts of animals that people don’t eat. Here, too, the new facility is expected to further advancement.
The inedible portion of a meat animal may constitute 25 percent to 50 percent of its total weight. Some of that has long been turned into products such as leather, bone meal and tallow (no longer used for candles but employed as a lubricant in the steel industry). But there are costs associated with disposing of the remaining millions of tons of feathers, hooves, tissue and bone generated every year.
Animal sciences professor Mark Cook thinks of it not as waste but as untapped potential. “This material has all the life support mechanisms for an animal,” he marvels. “We’re only eating the meat, but essentially, everything else is what keeps the animal alive.”
“We haven’t touched the surface” of this relatively new field of research, says Cook, who holds more than 20 patents and has started three companies based on discoveries from his three decades of research at CALS.
Developing new co-products from meat animals, from using pig aortas for human transplants (as is already being done with porcine heart valves) to extracting novel enzymes and other complex molecules, would not only add considerable value to the carcass (pound for pound, most traditional animal by-products have a low market value) but also have the potential to improve human and animal health.
In fact, such co-products could one day be worth more than the meat, says Christopher Salm, CEO of the Denmark, Wisconsin-based Salm Partners, which makes sausages with customized collagen protein casings for a variety of name-brand customers. That already has happened in the shrimp industry, Salm notes, where the protein in the processed shells—which gives hairsprays their gloss and styling power, among other uses—is more valuable than the shrimp meat.
Efforts to tap markets outside of the food chain have expanded the value of pig intestines, the outer walls of which have been used for centuries to create natural sausage casings. Scientific Protein Laboratories in Waunakee now extracts and purifies the anticoagulant heparin from the pig’s intestinal mucosa, an inner cell layer that is involved in immunological functions and regulating nutrition.
Indeed, the pig is a treasure trove of useful proteins. “We’ve already identified more than a dozen applications for them,” says Dhanansayan Shanmuganayagam, research director in the lab of animal sciences professor Jess Reed, whose team focuses on finding ways to use compounds derived from agricultural products to advance cardiovascular health and immunology.
Shanmuganayagam is excited by the potential a new facility would hold for a wide range of interdisciplinary research—and UW–Madison is uniquely positioned to take advantage of it, he says. Few institutions are home to world-class research programs in all of the relevant disciplines—including animal sciences, human and veterinary medicine, pharmacology, biomedical engineering and microbiology—all clustered on the west side of campus. Interdisciplinary work could result in the next generation of powerful imaging machines, new whole-tissue therapeutics and new control mechanisms for pathogenic threats such as diarrheal diseases that kill 1.5 million children worldwide every year, Shanmuganayagam notes.
“You can only do this here,” he says. “There aren’t a lot of animal science departments at agricultural land grant colleges where there also is a biomedical presence and a collaborative environment to pull this off. It takes all that to make this happen.
“This is very forward-thinking not only of the university, but also of the members of the meat industry who have stepped up to be part of it,” Shanmuganayagam says. “Many of them are excited by what they can do beyond meat—to be part of something that benefits human as well as animal health.”