At the best of times, Meatless Monday doesn’t have much of a chance in the University of Guelph meat laboratory.
But it was totally outnumbered last Monday when 100 or so faculty, staff and students crowded into the facility for the Department of Food Science meat and poultry processing course product presentations.
There, on a display table that stretched the length of the cavernous lab, a dozen student-developed processed meat products were offered for attendees to sample.
The students’ creations included breaded chicken stuffed with broccoli and cheese (a crowd favourite), large-diameter salami, honey garlic breakfast sausage and — my favourite — bratwurst infused with Black Diamond Cheddar cheese. It was a perfect blend of lean meat and tasty cheese. With summer in the not-too-distant future, I’d have a freezer full if they’d been for sale.
The annual showcase event is the pinnacle for the 30 students in the course, who work in teams throughout the semester to develop processed meat products of their choice.
The raw product for their processed meat projects is sourced 100 per cent from Ontario farms, says course instructor Prof. Shai Barbut.
“Many of these students will be employed in the food processing industry, and they’ll start their jobs being familiar with meat from livestock raised in Ontario,” he says.
This was a year of milestones for the course. It marked the 30th year the course — a food science elective — has been taught by Barbut. He became its instructor the first year he arrived on campus as a professor.
And at the other end of the chronological scale, it was the debut for the free online text Barbut published last summer, The Science of Poultry and Meat Processing. Barbut wrote it to mirror the many changes that have occurred in meat processing, in areas such as automation, food safety, microbiology and consumers’ preference towards low fat and low salt products.
When the book was released, Barbut said he was offering it gratis to say thanks to his own mentors.
“My children asked me if I would consider making one of my books free online and, feeling a great sense of gratitude toward those who had contributed to my own education, I agreed it would be a good way to give back,” he said.
Food science co-op student Faith Baxter was a member of the five-person team that developed the bratwurst. She and her teammates (Patricia Gani, Doris Wong, Nicholas Ojapalo and Robert Fu) set out to emulate Schneiders’ popular Grill’ems sausages.
Baxter, who worked at Maple Leaf Foods for her coop semester, and the rest of her team learned from Barbut about raw ingredients, seasonings, casings, grinding, mixing, stuffing and storing processed meat products like theirs. Along the way, they also made the likes of chicken nuggets, hams and other products that are popular with consumers.
They also learned a lot about food safety and industry standards in the processed meat industry.
“There’s no reason to fear meat,” she says. “People worry about things such as nitrites, but they appear in safe, small quantities, and control bacteria,” she says.
But despite the wide assortment of products on display at the showcase, one thing missing was her personal favourite, ox tail. “It’s a part of my Jamaican culture,” she says.
She also understands that at the entry level, product development is more likely to be focussed on those that have a broad appeal. But given Ontario’s growing diversity, there could be new opportunities to branch out. Barbut says that’s been a trend he’s seen over the years.
“In the processed meat business, there’s more emphasis all the time on international influences,” he says.
He cites Mediterranean; I’m thinking Caribbean, aboriginal Canadian, and Asian as well.
And I’m already looking forward to next year.