The splintered plywood sign with “Retail Meat Sale” hand painted in red and black capitals. The black arrow underneath pointing up the sidewalk. The squat brick building.
Every Friday, just off College Station road, a flurry of skepticism and confusion is the most likely reaction from onlookers who don’t know that it’s all part of UGA’s Meat Science Technology Center Store. But the funny thing about being in the store is the way everyone’s eyes skim right over all the things that make the retail space not a store. The uphill corridor that leads to classrooms. The processing area clearly visible through the freezer doors. The chicken wire-topped freezer case covered with warnings printed on colored paper: “Experimental Study,” “NOT for Human Consumption,” and “Product in this case is NOT for sale.”
Those signs aren’t just for decoration. Although the chicken wire case is empty now, the store’s manager, Ryan Crowe, says he plans to fill the case with meat slated for a shelf-life study. Crowe explains that the operation is a four-year research project for the United States Department of Agriculture. He and his students, under UGA’s College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences in the department of Animal and Dairy Science, are testing new ways to reduce food-borne illness: spraying meat with an anti-microbial agent before sending it through tenderizers. He tells me later that the tenderized steaks are the ones that will go into the shelf-life case in the store’s retail area.
The double doors just down the hall from the retail area lead into a whole different world. Red, white, and black hard hats hang on pegs over chain mail aprons. Crowe, the manager, hands me a hair net—everyone wears one, even Crowe, who is bald—and a dryer-warmed lab coat.
The room we walk into has walls that are blanketed with the same crinkly white plastic that covers cheap refrigerators. And it’s refrigerator cold—the alcohol thermometer on the wall reads 43 degrees Fahrenheit. Crowe nods at me and points to a sign above a sink near the door. “Wash up, please. You might have touched something.”
It smells like the grocery store steak case, which makes sense, considering the two bathtub-sized, stainless-steel containers are filled with beef trimmings. Student workers feed shovelfuls of hand-sized meat chunks into an industrial grinder. Crowe isn’t quite shouting, but he has to raise his voice to be heard over the low mechanical hum of the grinder.
The meat that is currently being pulverized into fat red and white caterpillars comes largely from animals raised for teaching and research by UGA. The University maintains herds of both pigs and cattle, with facilities that accommodate a 45 sow teaching herd, 200 brood cows, and between 200 and 300 steers.
If the meat passes USDA inspection, it is parceled into red, one-pound bags, frozen, and sold in the retail area out front. Today, the meat hasn’t been inspected and the red bags are marked NOT FOR SALE. Students box it up and carry it across the hall to the blast freezer, where it waits under a cardboard sign marked “Custom Exempt,” right across from the industrial wire shelving filled with whole hog carcasses, split in half and frozen solid.
The retail store itself came into being in 2000 or 2001, although Dr. Dean Pringle, the undergraduate coordinator for the Animal and Dairy Science program, says there was retail that happened earlier. The money from sales is funneled back into the Meat Sciences program as a way to defray costs.
“In today’s environment, a hog that we kill is probably worth $210,” Pringle said. “So if I’m going to use four hogs or five hogs in class, that’s a thousand bucks right there.”
In the industrially-clean back hallway, it is easy to forget that all the work that happens here is funneled into the freezer cases out front. But as I walk back out into the warmth of the retail area, I am reminded that, despite the experimental signs and the hallway classrooms, the Meat Science Technology Center Store is just that: a store.
A little boy charges around the space, opening and closing the freezer case doors.
“Can I hold that? Can I hold that Mommy?” he asks repeatedly. Finally, his mother hands him a chub of ground sausage. He runs over to the shopping basket and dumps the frozen sausage in, then flaps his hands back and forth in surprise. “My hands are all cold!” he shrieks.
As I leave, I ask the checkout clerks about their bestselling product. “Definitely the bacon,” “Yeah, the bacon,” they say, grinning.
UGA Meat Science Technology Center Store
425 River Rd.
Athens, Ga. 30602
The store is open Fridays from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.