A bumper sticker on Caleb Sehnert’s SUV reads “Eat beef – the West was not won on salad.”
It’s a fitting sentiment for Sehnert. After all, he manages the Meat Lab at UC Davis, where the coin of the realm is not only beef, but also pork and lamb.
In a year 300 pigs and 100 each of lamb and cattle are ushered into the unassuming facility, built in 1968, and exit as cuts of meat or as research material.
The Meat Lab has two aims: processing and teaching – mainly as part of Animal Sciences, but other departments avail themselves of the opportunities to work on or study the animals after slaughter.
The 5,000-square-foot lab recently has been busy with the slaughtering of one lamb and one pig for each of 19 Digestive Anatomy classes.
“We have about 20 animal science students that come in. They’ll be on the kill floor with the USDA inspector and myself, taking notes and seeing the whole process – from stunning to bleeding to evisceration” said Sehnert. “And when they are done they look at the digestive tract.”
Sehnert said that he usually gets one student each semester who is a vegetarian.
All of the animals that are processed at the lab are owned by the university and conceived and raised on different lots and feedlots at the UC Davis campus.
“That way we know their diets,” said Sehnert. “We know the kinds of medicines they get.”
Additionally, all of the meat at the facility is overseen by a USDA inspector – as befits most meat-processing facilities in the U.S.
That Davis has such a facility is no oddity. There are similar facilities at California State University campuses in Fresno, Chico, Pomona and San Luis Obispo. But, adds Sehnert, “We probably do more slaughtering than any of the others.”
The animal parts are used for teaching throughout campus. For example, biomedical engineering research on retinas uses pig eyes. Pigs are frequently used because of the similarity of pig and human physiology. In other cases animal body parts are used by students learning surgical suturing, Sehnert said.
Some of the classes are geared toward teaching the processing of meat, with students destined for butcher shops or meat-processing facilities.
About 20 students each quarter take the class. It requires no textbook, but students are required to buy a boning knife.
“The knives cost $15 a piece – so it’s one of the cheapest textbooks they will ever have to buy,” said Sehnert.
Many students end up working for Sehnert before they graduate and some after.
Cindy Garcia, who graduated from UC Davis six weeks ago, is staying on at the lab through the summer.
“I learned everything here – from walking the animal in to slaughter to the process of smoking beef and bacon. Anything meat-related I’ve learned here.”
Garcia initially enrolled at UC Davis as a veterinary student. But something about the process of handling and preparing meat took a hold of her.
Wearing a butcher’s smock, Garcia tied up a cut of chuck roast with string by expertly employing a butcher’s knot.
“I wanted to get anatomy experience as a pre-vet student. I wanted to be a surgeon, and then I kind of fell in love with this,” said Garcia.
Come fall, Garcia hopes to land a job either managing a processing plant or at the meat lab of California State Polytechnic University, Pomona.
The hardest thing about processing meat is the physicality of the work, said Garcia.
“It’s very labor intensive,” she said. “You don’t realize how tired you are until you get home.”
The meat lab sells meat retail in a side room from 1 to 5:30 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays.
On a recent Thursday there was a long line waiting for the cash register to open. Prices for the cuts of meat in the retail component are comparable to what other butcher shops charge, and typically follow rates set by the USDA, said Sehnert.
Patronage of the Meat Lab has been growing. Last year, during Christmas, the facility sold $9,300 worth of meat in two afternoons – a record, said Sehnert.
The most popular cuts of meat with customers on such holidays are rib roasts and aged prime rib.
And though they might not realize it, anyone eating a hot link at Aggie Stadium during a UC Davis football game is consuming a Meat Lab product.
There are two varieties – a regular hot link and a cheddar hot link. Sehnert is especially proud of the latter: His link took second place in the 2014 California Association of Meat Processors hot link competition.
His culinary secret? Lots of cayenne and red pepper flakes.
Call The Bee’s Edward Ortiz, (916) 321-1071. Follow him on Twitter @edwardortiz.