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Longview High School opens multi-million dollar meat lab

By Bridget Ortigo
Sept. 28, 2014 at 11 p.m.

Longview High School's multi-million dollar meat processing lab is up and running, and students are excited to try out its new features.

"The best part is the smoke room," senior Dekaylon Dudley said last week. "You can smoke anything in that smoker."

The $2.2 million lab allows students to learn how to age and cut meat. It also will help prepare them for work as a butcher or food service manager, school officials have previously said.

The lab is the only facility of its kind east of Interstate 45, agriculture and science instructor John Denson said. The lab is aligned with similar facilities at Texas Tech, Tarleton and Texas A&M universities, he added.

The smoker machine Dudley is chomping at the bit to use is a state-of-the-art piece of equipment. Controlled by a digital keypad, it can chart the cook cycle and temperature of each product for federal compliance purposes.

"We can cook meat dry or wet; smoke it or make jerky or bacon," Denson said. "We can do hams or briskets."

Other features include a harvest floor where students can learn how to process cuts of meat from an animal. The room boasts some of the newest equipment on the market, including a hog scalder and scraper that is considered to be the most effective and humane, Denson said.

Denson is certified to teach hunter's education at the lab and hopes to host clinics teaching hunters how to clean and process their own meat. The room is built with a rail and hooks so Denson can slide carcasses along and into the classroom for discussion and examination.

Next, the students would take the processed carcass into the chilled room where the low temperature slows the growth of bacteria while bringing down the temperature of the carcass to a safe 40 degrees. This eliminates the spread of bacteria, Denson said.

From there, the the carcass goes into an aging room that also could be used for isolation. The meat sits in this room to become aged, which can make it more tender, he said.

After aging, the meat goes into the lab's processing room to be cut up. This is also the room where Denson plans to have meat judging contests in the future for East Texas competitions.

The meat then goes into the packaging room.

"We will vacuum pack all of our products," Denson said. "Then we have two freezers to store the product in."

The lab has its own storage room with an additional freezer and refrigerator to store products.

"Eventually we will have it set up to retail meat," he said. "It was set up with those future goals in mind."

Denson said the lab could then sell the community "Lobo meat" like some universities' meat labs.

Right now, students are learning about the process. They can't start the harvesting process until the lab has been given the OK by an inspector from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Denson is working on a Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points plan and working on sanitation standard operating procedures with instructors at Tarleton and Texas A&M. Once the procedures are developed, Denson said, the inspector will come out.

The lab also includes an instruction room for the 175 students in various agriculture and animal science classes as well as an office for Denson.

A state inspector must be present during all harvests.

Dudley, who is president of the school's FFA, said he hopes to get a scholarship after taking meat processing and agriculture classes at the new lab.

"I'm hoping meat processing gets me into college," he said. "I'd like to study agriculture and architecture in college."

Being able to use the new meat lab will give him an edge over students in other programs who learn only through textbooks and pictures, he said.

"It's easier to learn when you have hands-on experience," Dudley said. "It's just a lot easier to learn from the real thing."

Denson said job opportunities for meat processing students are endless right now.

"There are so many scholarships available for them," he said. "These students are already getting letters from colleges to be on their meat-judging teams. There are several big meat companies like Tyson and others that are at these competitions looking for people."

Denson said students can get jobs locally straight from his lab or by going to college first.

"I've talked to several local grocers, and they all need trained meat processors," he said. "They have to train every person they're hiring right now."

Senior Martin Moreno said he also hopes the use of the new meat lab will help get him a scholarship.

"This facility has everything," Moreno said. "You'd normally have to go to a college to get this, and this is better than some colleges."



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