Earlier this year, Dan Schaefer at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, announced to the Wisconsin Livestock and Meat Council the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences’ (CALS) plans to build a new state-of-the-art meat science and muscle biology research facility. 

According to Schaefer, the idea of constructing a modern meat science facility had been contemplated by the Department of Animal Sciences within the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences at the University for more than a decade.  However, it was not until 2008 that the dean of CALS, the department, and a newly formed Meat Industry Advisory Committee focused their efforts on what has become the current initiative. 

Although the University of Wisconsin-Madison has not made an official announcement of the project plans, fund-raising efforts are already underway.

Schaefer wears many hats at the university, currently serving as interim associate dean for instruction in CALS, professor of animal sciences, and former chairman of the Department of Animal Sciences and now lead faculty member working on private fund raising for the new research facility.

Estimated to cost $42.8 million, the facility will be supported by both public and private funds. Schaefer explained in a telephone interview with Food Safety News.  The university’s goal is to develop a sum of $20 million in private sector support by March 1, 2011. 

The university has already begun to identify important players in the meat industry, including state, regional, and national companies, as potential investors in the project.

The University of Wisconsin, a public land-grant institution, is known for having the first and one of the most vibrant academic meat science programs in the country.  But the oldest wing of the meat science lab dates back to 1931.  The newest section was completed in 1969, making it more than 40 years old. 

Out-paced by new technology, the 80-year-old building no longer meets industry food safety standards.  This capital initiative aims to recognize the importance of the meat industry to the state, region and nation by designing and building a facility that can facilitate the generation of answers to current and future meat industry challenges and raise the awareness of students to opportunities involving products derived from meat animals. 

  At the same time, however, academic programs are often challenged by the large capital investments required to undertake facility replacement. 

Unfazed, Schaefer seems confident that the college will raise the necessary funds to build the new facility and have it fully operational in 2017.  He said, “We expect the number of nationally available academic meat science programs to decline from the present inventory, yet we aim to sustain an academic meat science program on this campus.” 

He continued, “Food pathogens will continue to vex the meat industry.  We wish to be the ‘go to’ solution for these challenges while also being an important provider of young, well-trained graduates for meat industry employment during the next 80 years.”

Once completed, the lab will have a core staff of 4 faculty and 4 staff members, along with undergraduate and graduate students participating in classes and research.  They will collaborate with scientists in the university’s Food Research Institute, Food Science, Bacteriology, Veterinary Medicine, School of Medicine and Public Health and other campus academic units. 

According to Schaefer, the new facility will allow a cadre of research scientists to work in partnership with meat research scientists using realistic meat processing procedures in the development of novel pathogen intervention strategies.

To achieve that, the new meat research facility will have a bio-safety level 2 isolatable pilot plant in which pathogens can be intentionally introduced into meat prior to various meat manufacturing steps.  From that point, novel intervention strategies can be tested or HACCP procedures validated.

Such capability should make the new program unique among national meat science facilities.  The scientists will be working with current “off-the-shelf” pathogens as well as those that are not yet recognized. 

Most importantly, the improved lab will allow researchers to remain on the cutting edge of food safety measures, according to Schaefer.  “The new facility will have a layout that is consistent with HACCP guidelines as we promote them to the industry” he explained.  With this layout, scientists will be able to demonstrate to companies industry methods that promote food safety and pathogen control. 

The program will also include a site for training government meat inspectors and the derivation of value-added uses for non-muscle offal. 

Schaefer added that the program’s food and meat science researchers must communicate their findings and expertise not only to the meat industry–including meat packers, processors and ingredient suppliers–but also to consumer groups.  They plan to accomplish this through training programs for corporate partners, adult and youth extension workshops, the electronic media and publications. 

Asked what he hopes the new research facility will contribute to the university as well as to industry, Schaefer outlined a concise, three-pronged goal: “We will be able to put onto display good manufacturing practices, we will reveal to students the many career paths available in the meat industry, and through the isolatable lab we will give the university and companies the important opportunity to study pathogen control.”

The University of Wisconsin’s website, “The mission of the Department of Animal Sciences is to generate new knowledge in the humane use of animals for the production of safe food, fiber and recreation.”  A modernized meat science research lab, school administrators believe, is a critical step toward furthering that mission.