Animal Science: A visit to the UC Davis Meat Laboratory

July 15, 2010

story and photography by Malia Wollan
This article originally appeared in
 Meatpaper Issue Twelve.

AT THIS SLAUGHTERHOUSE, meat isn’t really the point. Here, human appetites for marbled steak, say, or buttery bacon are subordinate to the tastes and needs of mosquitoes, biotech experiments, vampire bats, cancer research, and forensic entomologists. 

Here, meat is a by-product of science.

Caleb Sehnert is the round-faced, affable manager and only full-time employee at the Meat Laboratory at the University of California, Davis. Equal parts butcher and animal parts peddler, the 27-year-old wears a blood- splattered white lab coat and baseball cap that reads “Meat Lab.”

Once a week, Sehnert and a handful of student workers herd pigs, lambs, and cattle one by one down an alleyway behind a nondescript, dun-colored Department of Animal Sciences building, through a small door, onto the kill floor. Meanwhile, around the front, away from the blood and the smell of burning animal hair, lab techs, professors, and PhD students armed with lunch-sized coolers assemble in the hallway waiting to whisk fresh organs back to their labs. Sehnert charges $10 per part whether the researchers come for brains, adrenal glands, or lungs.

“They go one way and the meat goes the other,” Sehnert says. After passing off the coveted anatomical tidbits, Sehnert and his crew clean and process the carcasses to be sold in more customary cuts to local meatloaf makers, beef eaters, and barbecuers.

UC Davis is one of a dozen or so universities around the country with slaughterhouses that act as commercial meat facilities, learning laboratories, and animal research hubs. Universities with strong agriculture and animal sciences programs like Texas A&M, Iowa State University, and the University of Nebraska have long used meat labs as training grounds for future commercial meat processors, but the meat lab at UC Davis caters to research far beyond animal husbandry and agriculture. While Davis began as an ag school, in recent years it has also become a center for biotechnology. “At the beginning, the lab was geared toward livestock production,” says Dan Sehnert, Caleb’s father, who ran the meat lab for almost two decades beginning in 1981. “Now it is more focused on biotech and benefiting human health. Biotech is where the money is at.”

When Dan Sehnert started at the meat lab, UC Davis employed seven meat science professors, and now there are none, he says. These days, it is rare to find any traditional meat and animal scientists among the researchers waiting outside the kill floor. The central scientific questions governing the university have shifted over the years away from ag scientists investigating optimal feed mixes for growing fat hogs, say, or how best to reduce pathogenic bacteria in beef jerky. Now the meat lab supplies flesh, blood, and bone for a bizarre spectrum of scientific inquiries.

The meat lab supplies flesh, blood, and bone for a bizarre spectrum of scientific inquiries.

Blood from the lab has gone to feed vampire bats and satiate mosquitoes raised for a West Nile virus study; engineering doctoral students needed pigs’ cervical vertebrae for a digital model they built to evaluate job safety for farm workers; medical students tested prostate cancer drugs on boars; pig femoral arteries went to a nearby Air Force base, where they were used by medical staff training for emergency battleground surgery; forensic entomology students buried and then periodically exhumed pig heads and dead piglets from the lab to record the corpses’ maggot life and decomposition; and medical students practiced liver transplants on pigs that the meat lab later processed.

Researchers call the lab to request sow reproductive tracts, sheep pituitary glands, pig prostates, and all manner of muscles, spinal chords, brain lobes, and sex organs on which to test pharmaceuticals, practice surgery, study genes, map DNA, or otherwise analyze, experiment on, and examine, all in the name of science.

In addition to serving as the go-to repository for any imaginable fleshy fragment of a pig, goat, cow, or sheep, the meat lab also weeds out the squeamish among the university’s aspiring veterinarians. Each semester, Caleb Sehnert takes dozens of students through the process of animal slaughter and meat making.

Most meat lab students are undergraduates who’ve never seen a dead animal before, let alone a cow with a bolt to the brain, hung by its hind legs to bleed.

Before the students arrive, Sehnert lines extra 32-gallon garbage cans with heavy-duty trash bags and places them strategically around the kill floor. “Each class, there are three or four that throw up and two or three that pass out,” he says. Students watch him shoot a bolt gun into the space between a cow’s eyes, above the cowlick swirl of hair on its forehead. Most attendees are undergraduates who’ve never seen a dead animal before, let alone a cow with a bolt to the brain, hung by its hind legs to bleed.

“We have them team up and have a partner, a buddy, in case they feel woozy,” says Sehnert. “Last year, I had just taken the head off a lamb and broken the jaw open so they could see the teeth. I looked over and I saw a girl just floating; her eyes were closed and she was rocking back and forth. Someone had to carry her away.”

The students gawk while Sehnert touches an electric wand to pigs’ skulls, loads the bodies into the hog scalder to pull off the hair, skins them, removes the guts, and washes and disinfects the carcasses. None of it bothers Sehnert. Some of his earliest childhood memories are here, in this lab, watching his dad transform animals into meat and the raw materials of research. He drives a mud-splattered truck with a bumper sticker that reads, “Eat beef. The west wasn’t won on salad.”

While Dan Sehnert, now the animal facilities coordinator for the university’s animal sciences department, is curious about the research projects of the many microbiologists, endocrinologists, veterinarians, nutritionists, and medical students who frequent the lab, his son is more inclined to dutifully fulfill their needs and not ask questions. Instead, Caleb Sehnert likes the meat-making part of the job. He enjoys showing students how to keep an animal calm, kill it instantly, avoid E. coli contamination, and cut through bone with a band saw. On Thursday and Friday afternoons, the meat lab opens its doors to customers who come to buy what remains after the researchers have gone. “People have this preconceived notion that this place will be dark and bloody and dirty,” he says. “Really, it’s all fluorescent lights and white walls. Everything is clean. Whatever else we do here, in the end, we make food.” 

MALIA WOLLAN was a teenage vegetarian. A regular contributor to the New York Times, her written and multimedia pieces have also appeared in The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times Magazine, National Public Radio, and Frontline/WORLD.

This article originally appeared in Meatpaper Issue Twelve.


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