October 9, 2003

FOOD 290: Vegetarians Beware

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Where would you expect to find knife collection displays on the walls and posters with different cuts of meat? Welcome to FOOD 290: Meat Science where beef, pork and lamb reign supreme.

Denny Shaw, meats manager and instructor of the course, explained, “no one goes out of this class trained as a butcher, but we do look at all aspects of the meat industry.”

In lectures, students learn the chemistry, physiology and anatomy of different animals. Later in the semester, they look at the muscle which becomes meat, as well as the issues of meat quality.

The class is split into slaughter labs, dissection labs, curing and sausage labs and meat cookery and sensory labs.

In the two slaughter labs, students have the opportunity to do the slaughtering, but this task is not obligatory. Each lab has approximately 16 students — slaughtering tasks are split among lab partners. For example, labs often have three to four pigs, with a few students performing the stunning, others doing the bleeding and still other students doing the skinning or shaving.

All slaughtering procedures must abide by Cornell regulations and the federal humane slaughter rules dictated by the United States Department of Agriculture.

In the dissection lab, students learn how to do most specific retail cuts; in the curing and sausage labs, students do some taste-testing. Sausages made by the students are often sold by Shaw.

In the meat cookery and sensory lab, different cooking methods are employed. The lesson includes cooking spare ribs both correctly and incorrectly, although all the ribs seem to get eaten at the same rate, according to Shaw.

Former student Jessica Graham ’03 remarked that, “[the class] was a really good experience, learning good cooking techniques and where things are on the animal.”

The class usually includes several field trips, one of which is to Zweigles, a regional sausage and meat packing business for the Rochester and Buffalo areas. Shaw said that Zweigles hot dogs dominate that region: “Oscar Meyer couldn’t sell a hot dog there.” Another field trip brings students to the Excel-Taylor Plant, a beef slaughter plant in Pennsylvania and a major agribusiness in the United States.

Students have one month to work on a project relating to meat, which they present on the last day of class. Shaw said that most of these presentations include eating. Many make a type of sausage for their project, but past projects have included making venison, venison jerky, calf testicles and rendering pork fat into lard for use in chocolate chip cookies or pies. Other projects have focused on by-products, such as the making of perfumes, skin creams, pelts and bars of soap from animal fat.

Facilities utilized for the class are unique. A slaughter room and cooler for taking the initial heat out of the meat, which must follow special regulations, are both used. There is also a warmer area for the carcasses to age, as well as two big freezers for storing it.

There are approximately 50 students enrolled in the lecture, and the class has grown in the past 5-6 years, according to Shaw. About 70 percent of the students are animal science majors; another 10 percent food science majors and the remaining students from The College of Engineering and School of Hotel Administration.

Why take such a class? Liz Wilensky ’05 said, “I like animals, but I just wanted to see how they did it.”

“It’s amazing how far away people have gotten from agriculture,” Shaw said. He commented on past students who asked why anyone would milk a cow instead of just going to the store and buying a gallon. “This is where your meat is coming from, and it’s important to understand that there’s a whole industry behind it,” Shaw explained.

Archived article by Vanessa Hoffman