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Fall 2020

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A partnership between the UW Meat Science program and Vita Plus brought 8,700 pounds of university meat, such as this pork sausage packaged at Stoddard’s Meat Market in Cottage Grove, Wis., to more than a dozen area food banks. Photo by Marjorie Stieve/Vita Plus

 

When the coronavirus pandemic started disrupting the nation’s meat supply chains in spring, UW–Madison’s swine program soon found itself among the affected operations. With roughly 1,500 pigs housed at Arlington Agricultural Research Station, the swine program conducts nutritional studies that support the hog industry in Wisconsin and the Midwest. When the pigs reach market weight, they are typically sent to harvest at the Tyson Fresh Meats plant in Waterloo, Iowa. But the coronavirus quickly changed all that.

The Tyson plant, dealing with worker shortages and a shutdown due to COVID-19 infections, couldn’t take the university’s hogs. Meanwhile, the demand for meat products at grocery stores and food pantries was rising.

“I made the case that we have animal processing capability and cooler space at the Meat Science and Muscle Biology Laboratory,” explains Jamie Reichert, manager at Arlington station’s swine facility. “So let’s process our pigs that have nowhere to go and help supply meat to our community. Let’s be part of the solution here.”

And a great solution did arise — through a bit of serendipity and a key partnership.

During a virtual meeting about the upcoming opening of the new Meat Science and Animal Biologics Discovery Building on campus, Jeff Sindelar, professor and extension meat specialist in the Department of Animal and Dairy Sciences, happened to mention the university’s surplus hog situation. Also on the call was Al Gunderson BS’77, MS’79, vice president of Vita Plus, a Madison-based animal feed and technology company.

“After the call, Al independently reached out to us,” says Sindelar. “He said, ‘Hey, we’ve got this new Vita Plus Serving Customers and Rural Communities Project, and I think it may have good alignment [with your goals].’”

The purpose of the Vita Plus project, launched in April with a $100,000 commitment, is to purchase dairy, beef, and pork products directly from producers and contribute them to local food pantries, school programs, and other local food security efforts.

Not long after the meeting, a partnership began, and a process was put in place to have Reichert and animal and dairy sciences department staff safely harvest surplus hogs at the Meat Science and Muscle Biology Laboratory. Gunderson recruited Jerry Stoddard of Stoddard’s Meat Market in Cottage Grove to pick up the carcasses and turn them into familiar cuts, such as chops, roasts, ribs, brats, and sausage. Vita Plus employees drove the finished frozen pork products to area food banks, and the company’s Serving Customers and Rural Communities Project helped cover the costs of the meat and processing.

“It’s wonderful to have this pork that was in jeopardy of not being utilized go to people who need it and help the community,” says Gunderson, a graduate of the university’s meat and animal science program and a recipient of one of the 2020 CALS Honorary Recognition Awards.

The department provided around 8,700 pounds of meat to more than a dozen area food banks through the Vita Plus partnership. For the pantries receiving the pork, it was a welcome gift.

“We serve the elderly, young families, the sick, people who’ve experienced some kind of crisis — anybody,” says Ruth Ann Waugh, volunteer coordinator of the Poynette Area Community Food Pantry. “Many people do receive some kind of [government] assistance, but we are that fill-in. When their shelves get low, we’re right there to help. And pork is something we don’t always have, so this was an awesome donation.”

Using the advanced facilities and equipment at the new Meat Science and Animal Biologics Discovery Building, faculty and staff will train current and future meat industry leaders and find ways to enhance animal and human health. You can support these programs with a gift by donating online or contacting Henry Lagrimini at henry.lagrimini@supportuw.org or 608-308-5375.

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