‘Farm to fork’: Cal Poly meat processing center preps students to enter thriving industry

Americans are eating more red meat and poultry than ever before, and Cal Poly is training students to help meet those growing consumer needs through its state-of-the-art meat processing center.

The average consumer will eat more than 220 pounds of red meat and poultry in 2018, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and domestic production is expected to surpass 100 billion pounds for the first time.

Meanwhile, Cal Poly’s meat processing center — completed in 2011 and funded largely by private donations — offers local students hands-on experience in every step of the process, from harvest to packaging.

Jaymie Noland, head of Cal Poly’s animal science department, said the program emphasizes a farm-to-fork mentality. Students breed and raise the animals on the sprawling San Luis Obispo campus before bringing them into the USDA-inspected meat processing center.

“We are trying to show students how to do it right,” Noland said. “It’s one of the premier meat processing centers on any university campus in the world.”

Cal Poly’s facility includes a harvest floor that offers separation between hide-on and hide-off rooms for beef, veal, lamb, pork and goat. It also has a designated area for harvesting chicken and turkey, a meat fabrication and processing space, classrooms, and a ready-to-eat packaging area with ready-to-eat coolers, among other features.

Noland said that no harvest is done without a USDA inspector present. Their inspectors also are veterinarians, Noland added, who are every bit as interested in the humane treatment of the animal as they are in food safety.

“It’s a very regulated process that we have here,” Noland said.

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Jim Douglass, a 1979 Cal Poly graduate who oversees the meat processing center, said students also focus on what the animals are fed during the last few months of their lives before harvest.

Once the meat has been processed, students can take their work all the way to the consumer, which Douglass said is an invaluable experience.

“Not many universities have the capability to bring the whole process to fruition the way we can here,” Douglass said.

Cal Poly student Sarah Dreyer said she comes from a livestock background and was inspired to take classes at the meat processing center to get a better understanding of the entire process.

“You’re able to see the end product and really see where that sustainable food source is coming from,” Dreyer said. “Then you understand that farm-to-fork movement, and I always grew up on the other side.”

Still, there are some who disagree with Cal Poly’s meat processing center.

San Luis Obispo activist Zoe Rosenberg made headlines in April when she was arrested for allegedly attempting to rescue a pig from the meat processing center.

A week later, Rosenberg was escorted off campus in handcuffs after chaining herself to a gate in an effort to prevent a cow from being harvested. She orchestrated another on-campus protest in early October.

Cal Poly spokesman Matt Lazier told The Tribune in April that the university “insists on the humane and ethical treatment of any animals used on campus or by affiliated entities.”

“Cal Poly recognizes its responsibilities to ensure that animals are well cared for, and therefore adheres to all applicable federal, state, local and institutional laws or guidelines governing animal welfare.”

Douglass, who said about 90 percent of the students he works with are female, emphasized that students are motivated to keep the facility in impeccable condition, and they take great pride in their work.

“It’s a special place,” Douglass said.

Correction: A previous version of this story gave the incorrect spelling for Jaymie Noland.

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