Students hope to make cut at meat-judging competition in Dallas

Meagan Igo spent her weekend stuck in an Oak Cliff meat locker.

Meagan Igo spent her weekend stuck in an Oak Cliff meat locker.

The near freezing temperature served as a numbing reminder: This was her future.

"I worked 100 hours in the past week and a half to get to this," said the 19-year-old Texas Tech sophomore, who had traded a balmy Saturday for a white lab coat, red hard hat and 10 hours in a meat packing plant.

In a land where a piece of quality meat is akin to art, about 140 students from as far as Kansas and South Dakota came to participate in the Southwestern Intercollegiate Meat Judging Contest, one of the country's most intense, intimate and clandestine college contests.

Meat judging sounds more like a wine-tasting occasion than an extracurricular triathlon.

But regimens like Igo's – 4 a.m. training sessions, 12-hour practices and a slew of canceled weekend plans – reveal a subculture of surprising dedication and sacrifice.

The perk: almost immediate acceptance into the meat industry. They obtain coveted jobs with the agriculture department, Tyson Foods or other leading meat producers. Ultimately, they determine the steak on your plate.

The stakes are even higher this year as graduates scramble for employment in a bone-dry job market.

Wearing two jackets, a thermal shirt and a T-shirt, Igo followed the contest's regimen with students from about 20 colleges. A shrill whistle and a deep-throated "rotate" determined the distance and length of time she could visually dissect a slab of meat. Her rankings and written analysis would fall under heavy scrutiny by a USDA grader and other industry officials.

She'd wait a day for the score.

For 83 years, these college competitions have been the Olympics of meat judging.

"They're like No. 1 draft picks," said Mark Miller, a professor of meat science and muscle biology at Texas Tech. His group won the national championship last year and is considered one of the country's top-ranked teams, along with Texas A&M.

"There's no doubt they will have multiple jobs available to them," he said. The school has even created a $1 million meat judging endowment that helps with scholarships and travel.

It's paid off. Students have landed jobs as graders for the United States Department of Agriculture, production developers for H-E-B and food technologists at Cargill.

The USDA reported a 2-percent increase in U.S. income from beef, pork and sheep to $65.5 billion in 2007. But the recent slaughtering of jobs nationwide has made it more difficult to make the cut.

"Someone with experience judging can slide right in with us," said Darrell Dowd, a USDA grader and one of the contest's official judges. "And with attrition the way is, we are looking for replacements. Now is the perfect time."

Mike Ondrusek, an owner of Columbia Packing Co., where Saturday's contest was held, said he's hired up to 10 students over the years as a result of their participation in meat judging contests.

He has offered up his small packing plant for the annual competition for almost three decades. The event is sponsored by the American Meat Science Association in conjunction with the Fort Worth stock show.

"If they have been through the program, they have a vast amount of knowledge," Ondrusek said.

Mary Hunt had never judged 4-H competitions in high school like some of her peers. She didn't know the difference between a clod and a bulge. But the highly competitive nature of meat judging fed her ambition.

Now the Oklahoma State University sophomore can pinpoint the origin of the sausage links and sliced ham on her lunch plate. JBS, a prominent meat company in Colorado, has already offered her an internship.

Meat judging teams range from eight to 15 people, although they can be as small as four. Judgers look at the marbling – the amount of fat interspersed in muscle – that would suffice for a dinner at Pappas Bros. Steakhouse vs. a grocery store shelf.

They evaluate the tenderness, flavor and quality of pork, lamb and beef without touching or tasting it.

"It's not a spectator sport like football," joked veteran coach and contest superintendent Randy Hines. "But it's a game with a competitive edge."

The extracurricular tends to attract animal science majors, or curious pre-med types fascinated by the rigors of this hidden world.

The blend of analysis, physiology and mental calisthenics enticed New Mexico native Leah Madsen, a former Texas Tech meat judger who is now a family physician in Greenville.

"You're pushing yourself towards a goal. I can pretty much do anything now if I don't have to get up a 4 a.m. and be in a meat locker," she said.

Students are limited to one year of participation and usually start their training the previous fall with a meat science class. The first contest takes place in Denver in January and is considered by some as the warm-up for Dallas.

The silent competition ended by midafternoon Saturday as students rushed back to their coaches to rehash the day's events. Some students planned to attend today's stock show after the awards are announced this morning in Fort Worth.

But others, like Clarendon College student Kyle Owen, thought he'd skip the live animals. He had classes Monday and a speech to prepare.

And with the next meat judging contest just a month away in Houston, he had to get back to work.

A Closer Look at Meats Judging

What it is: A series of competitions across the country, predominantly for college students. They judge the quality of beef, pork and lamb carcasses by examining their marbling amount and maturity level. They also rank the "yield grades" or how much meat can be obtained from a carcass.

Who runs it: The American Meat Science Association sponsors six contests. They're held at processing plants and packing companies from Houston to Denver. The national championship is held at Tyson Foods in Dakota City, Neb., toward the end of the year. The Southwestern competition was held Saturday at Columbia Packing Co. in Dallas.

Who judges: A committee of seven officials who include USDA graders; meat specialists at companies like H-E-B, Tyson Foods and Cargill; National Cattlemen's Beef Association representatives and university professors.

Contestant rewards: Meat judging helps land jobs in the meat industry and with the USDA.