MSU workforce training for meat processors answering immediate need
MSU scientists with the Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station prepare steaks on styrofoam strays at the university's Meat Science and Muscle Biology Lab, where a new apprenticeship program is training a much-needed workforce to address meat processing and packing demands. (Photo By: David Ammon)
By: Lily Grado
Consolidation of the meat packing and processing industry has left U.S. production and supply with a critical problem: vulnerability to periodic and unforeseen disruptions in availability and pricing of consumer products.
Mississippi State University scientists are confronting the issue with immediate training programs to build a capable workforce for innovation within and operation of the supply chain, a need the U.S. Department of Agriculture has called "paramount."
MSU's Meat Science Education and Training (MEAT) Apprenticeship program aims to train individuals to help ensure the success of small and midsized meat processing plants across Mississippi and the Southeastern U.S. The university initiative incorporates efforts outlined in the American Rescue Plan which expands meat and poultry processing capacity for all who are invested-farmers, ranchers and consumers-to have more choices in the marketplace.
The MSU program is led by Derris Devost-Burnett, associate professor in the Department of Animal and Dairy Sciences, who pointed out that while most large, consolidated plants are automated, smaller plants require a more hands-on approach and MSU is well positioned to provide technical training for this niche workforce.
Burnett, also a scientist in the Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station and director of the USDA-inspected MAFES Meat Science and Muscle Biology Laboratory on campus, said, "Our 18,000-square-foot meat processing facility is intentionally designed as an innovation center capable of state-of-the-art research, processing and workforce development."
"There is a need for skilled labor when it comes to providing the medium and smaller plants with a productive workforce," said Burnett. "Our experience has made us very familiar with the needs of these small producers and processors as well as the knowledge gaps, regulatory barriers and other challenges that exist in getting their product from the farm to the fork. We are uniquely qualified to provide the apprenticeship training as we have deliberately designed our facility and experiential learning programs to provide outcome-based training for the meat production sector."
The apprenticeship program is specifically designed to teach valuable skills to apprentices of varying skill levels. Apprentices must complete a vigorous 120 hours of service as well as demonstrate proficiency in useful skills including harvesting and cutting meat products, participating in sanitation and labeling, and using marketing strategies to accommodate the modernized food supply chain.
Recently, Burnett submitted a proposal to the American Meat Science Association to expand the apprenticeship model so that the program and its tactics can be used and replicated across the country.
"We're hoping to expand our program and make it more widely available to other types of processing plants," said Burnett. "While our program focuses on harvesting, cutting, seasoning, marinating and injecting meats like beef, we are realizing that our models are transferable to other types of meat."
Apprentices in the program are accepted from within the university student body and from the community. To date, three student apprentices have completed the program: Cole Miles, a 2022 graduate currently managing an Alabama beef processing plant; Rider Worley, a 2022 graduate currently enrolled in the MSU College of Veterinary Medicine while pursuing internships with USDA Food Safety Inspection Services; and Jamarah Wright who graduated this past spring and begins work in the meat processing industry this fall.
Macon native Benny Malone is the first community apprentice to complete the program. A butcher with no formal training, he learned more advanced techniques through MSU including "further processing"-the alteration of the meat's original form into such products as sausage and bacon.
"This program is the perfect solution for anyone wanting to get into the meat packaging industry," said Malone. "It really provides a well-rounded experience that took me many years and different jobs to obtain. Even though I'm experienced, I learned many useful skills and I believe anyone, of any level of experience, could benefit immensely from this program."
To learn more about the apprenticeship program, contact Derris Devost-Burnett at 662-325-2802 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information on MSU's Department of Animal and Dairy Sciences, visit www.ads.msstate.edu, and for more details on the Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station, visit www.mafes.msstate.edu.
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