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Inside the Penn State Meats Lab: Local Burgers, Courtesy of Happy Valley Cows

by on March 23, 2011 6:50 AM

I’m not wearing the right shoes.

That’s the first thought that went through my mind when Chris Raines offered to take me on a behind-the-scenes tour of The Penn State Meats Laboratory. The 16,000-square-foot lab is across from Beaver Stadium on Porter Road, inside what might be the ugliest building on the University Park campus.

Inside, Raines, an extension meat specialist and assistant professor in Penn State’s department of dairy and animal science, spends his days researching, processing, tasting and tweeting meat. (Nearly 3,000 people follow him on Twitter at @iTweetMeat.)

I contacted Raines because I wanted to learn more about the Friday meat sale that has customers lining up even in 10-degree weather.

The sale is the last step in a self-contained food system that exists to educate Penn State students and various members of the agriculture community, from farmers to butchers.

Lucky for the general consumer, that food system happens to yield plenty of high-quality, USDA-inspected meat, including beef, pork and lamb.

I first heard of the meat sale from a friend. He’s endured long lines, unpredictable availability (this isn’t a grocery store), and dirty looks from customers who also wanted that last steak. The “meat sale,” he says, simply has the best food to serve at a Penn State tailgate.

If you ask me, those stories make the steak fajitas taste even better.

Feeding Rockview Inmates

Raines’ position is funded primarily by Cooperative Extension, and he spends much of his time working with butchers and meat processors, trouble-shooting and helping with safety-compliance issues. Because of the educational opportunities the Meats Lab offers, colleagues in Connecticut and New York have described it as a backbone of the local food movement, he said.

“Pennsylvania has more meat plants than any other state, because they’re so small,” Raines says. “There are almost 400 USDA-inspected plants in Pennsylvania. We keep quite busy keeping all these other little guys going.”

When I ask Raines whether Gov. Tom Corbett’s proposed budget could threaten the future of that mission, he replied: “We have no idea, honestly, how we’re going to fare; that’s about the best answer I can give.”

The lab is rich in history, dating back to 1960. In the beginning, it worked with Rockview Penitentiary, processing livestock from farms the facility operated, then returning the meat. “That’s how they would feed the inmates,” he said. All of the furniture at the Meats Lab was built by Rockview inmates.

Today it feeds a lot of tailgates.

A few steps outside of Raines office, we passed a row of black, industrial-style, knee-high rubber boots, and I half-contemplated asking him if I should swap my turquoise flats for something better suited for our tour. But Raines wasn’t taking off his office shoes, so I figured I was safe.

Next stop was a storage room filled with products still in development, from meat sticks to a sausage shaped like a football (for football Saturdays, of course). It isn’t unusual to find bottles of cow blood in the kitchen; they’re sent to the Philadelphia Zoo to feed the bat colony.

Face to Butt with a Pig

Despite its reputation in the agriculture community, the Meats Lab has a bit of an image problem, due to its name. “People think we have all of these weird research animals we’re trying to sell,” Raines said with a laugh. “Rest assured that everything that goes through here is a completely normal animal.”

I can attest to that statement, because minutes later I was in the “aging cooler,” face to butt with a massive pig. (It’s amazing how large the animals look when they’re hanging upside down from giant hooks.)

The animal held little resemblance to the pork sausage that was defrosting in my fridge for the lasagna recipe I was hoping to try out later that evening. Then again, I thought, the large, dirty carrots I get from Tait Farm look a lot better once they’ve been cleaned, peeled, and dressed in a salad.

The aging cooler was about as far from Trader Joe’s as you could possibly get. Stripped of marketing, packaging and skin, these animals needed some primping before they were ready for their retail debut.

I was glad to see them, nonetheless.

While I won’t deny feeling a bit squeamish about the notion of walking through the tiniest drop of blood (didn’t happen), those animals are an important part of this story.

The grocery stores may call it a hamburger, but it’s really ground beef. And unlike the case with a lot of food, the origin of a pound of ground beef purchased at the Penn State meat sale is pretty easy to trace.

It’s right outside, grazing on a field not far from your tailgate.

Editor's note: The sale runs Fridays from 9:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. (or until they sell out) during the fall and spring semesters.



Michele Marchetti is a freelance writer and the former managing editor of StateCollege.com. Prior to moving to State College, she spent more than 10 years writing for national magazines. Her work has appeared in a wide variety of publications, including Fortune, Fortune Small Business, Glamour, U.S. News & World Report, Runner's World, Good Housekeeping, Working Mother, Yoga Life and The Philadelphia Inquirer. Follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/MMStateCollege or contact her at mitchmarchetti@gmail.com
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