Every month, the Boilermaker Butcher Block sells between 6,000 and 8,000 pounds of meat. The retail store, located in Smith Hall on the Purdue University campus, has cases filled with everything from porterhouse steaks to butterfly pork chops to apple bratwurst.
On Wednesday and Friday afternoons, the store opens its doors to customers looking for quality cuts for their dinner tables.
But what happens in that building on the other days of the week brings home the bacon for Indiana consumers and Purdue students. That’s because Smith Hall is the home of the Purdue Meat Science and Research Education Center, known as the Meat Lab.
A program of the Department of Animal Sciences, the Purdue Meat Lab provides opportunities for students to learn how to process animals and produce a wholesome, high-quality product for consumers. Jolena Waddell, director of the Meat Lab and assistant professor of animal sciences, explains that students learn the art of tenderizing, cutting and aging meat, as well as the important sanitation and food safety processes required for such work.
“All animal sciences students are required to take a products class,” Waddell says. “Of course, it’s a valuable training ground for students specifically interested in a meat science career, but it benefits all of our animal sciences students to understand the process from live animal through retail.”
And the live animals arrive from just about 10 miles down the road.
“We have an animal sciences farm near Montmorenci, and that’s where the animals for the Meat Lab come from. So our meat is Purdue bred and fed,” Waddell says.
That’s definitely a benefit for the consumer concerned about food miles – and a point of pride for the Boilermaker Butcher Block, says Mike Booth, the shop’s meat cutter manager. He explains that the homegrown focus means better control of breeding and management, as well as less handling, so the product doesn’t get stressed.
“That results in a high-quality product,” Booth says. “Plus, we are able to offer our meat at prices that are comparable to grocery stores.”
It’s also very fresh. “We have limited storage space, so we have to move the product to retail fairly quickly after the meat is cut,” he explains.
What’s at Steak?
The Boilermaker Butcher Block was established in the mid-1970s as a way to make the best use of the products being processed in the Meat Lab. Today, Booth and another full-time butcher work with students to teach them the important skills of meat processing, safety and sanitation. Together, the butchers have a combined 50 years of experience.
“Our butchers are highly skilled and know every step of the process, so they are an extremely valuable part of our operation,” Waddell says. “We also meet the same codes and standards of other state-inspected operations and have an inspector here every day.”
Much of the work, however, from the processing to the packaging to running the cash register, is done by students working part-time.
“The Butcher Block provides our students with a valuable, practical and well-rounded experience, and that makes them very highly sought after in the industry,” Waddell says.
Blue Ribbon Specials
In addition to the Purdue bred-and-fed animals, the Meat Lab also has the distinction of being the processor for all of the Indiana State Fair champions, which total about 60 each year.
Every August, the Meat Lab purchases all of the champion steers, hogs, lambs and goats, Waddell says. They become blue-ribbon specials in the Boilermaker Butcher Block.
The Meat Lab also has a research mission that brings additional benefits to consumers and students alike.
“There is a lot of research being conducted here at Purdue that focuses on improving meat quality and tenderness, such as measuring the impact of feeding cattle extra vitamin E and D, or finding alternative feed ingredients that are cheaper than corn,” Waddell says. “Through [Purdue] Extension efforts, we also work to help the public, and especially young people, understand where their meat comes from and how we handle it safely.”
Where’s the Beef?
Products sold at the Boilermaker Butcher Block include cuts of beef, chicken, pork, lamb, and a variety specialty items, such as ground turkey, whole duck and various bratwurst and sausages. Find a complete list of available products at www.ansc.purdue.edu/meatshop. The retail store, open Wednesday and Friday afternoons from 2 to 5:30 p.m., is located in room 170 of Smith Hall at the corner of University and State streets in West Lafayette.