History of Meat Science

Robert W. Bray
Professor Emeritus
University of Wisconsin

Originally published in The 50th Anniversary History of the Reciprocal Meat Conference, (1997).

Prologue to Meat Science

Meat, the flesh from animals, has contributed to the welfare of man for centuries, the muscle and associated fatty tissues supplying him with a major portion of his protein and energy needs.

Today, meat on the table is an accepted fact in the affluent lives of most Americans; yet younger generations know very little of the extraordinary achievements that have brought them both a quantity and a quality of meat available no place else in the world. The amount and quality of meat consumed are tied closely to strong agricultural economies and to the amount of disposable incomes.

Today’s meat supply is in sharp contrast to that of the days when man had to rely on the hunting of wild animals native to the area. In America, the large buffalo, elk and deer herds provided the Indians and early settlers with their meat supply. With the demise of these herds, the introduction of cattle, pigs, and sheep from Europe and the British Isles led to the development of domesticated herds and flocks and a more dependable food supply. Families spent most of their time producing food, shelter and clothing for their own use. Ninety percent of the U.S. population was on farms in l800 (compared to about 2.0% now).

Animal husbandry was developed through experience at first, but in the latter half of the 19th century, leaders of government recognized the need to further develop its agriculture, for only an efficient agriculture could free labor to develop a great nation. Thus, the significance of U.S. agriculture today, and meat-animal production as a large part of it, can be attributed to such enabling acts as the Homestead Act of 1862 (which encouraged and enhanced the development of family farms), the Morrill Act of 1862 (which established the State Agricultural Experiment Stations), and the Smith-Lever Act of 1914 (which established the Cooperative Agricultural Extension Service). All of these developments did indeed lead to a more efficient animal-production industry which provided adequate supplies of meat for U.S. citizens, as well as an excess for export in the beginning of the 20th century.

The meat-packing industry developed at central marketing points such as Philadelphia, and then westward to Cincinnati, Chicago, Kansas City and Omaha. The Chicago stockyards, established in 1865, soon became the nation’s leading livestock market. The development of the railway system and very importantly, the refrigerated railroad car, was a major factor in developing huge meat-packing industries in both Chicago and Kansas City. Marketing and the sale of carcasses by processors to retailers led to the recognition of value differences among animals sold for slaughter and ultimate consumption. Consumer protection from meat unfit for consumption first came about in the passage of the Meat Inspection Act of 1906.

Subsequently, livestock shows, patterned after those of Europe, were sponsored by central markets and meat packers, such as the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia and Fat Stock Shows in Chicago and Kansas City. These shows were the forerunners of the International Livestock Exposition in Chicago and the American Royal in Kansas City in about 1900, as well as in other cities with public stockyards.

Differences in the rates of animal growth and reproduction led to very significant discoveries by British and U.S. scientists in animal husbandry during the latter part of the 19th century. Credit must be given to British researchers J.B. Lawes and J.H. Gilbert who were perhaps the first to report (in 1860) on the influence of “fattening” on the composition of oxen, sheep and pigs. W.A. Henry of Wisconsin and Sanborn of the Missouri Experiment Station in the 1800’s sought to answer the question “Will the character of food influence the character of bone and muscle of a pig?” Subsequently, in the early part of the 20th century, it was confirmed by animal nutritionists that meat animals, especially hogs, were in a real sense what they ate. No one feed material provided the necessary materials required for growth and reproduction. The proper amount and quality of protein in meat animal rations, the contribution of energy from carbohydrates and starches in grain, and the discovery and need of vitamins and minerals led to very significant increases in the supply of meat during this period. Animal health research was also an important factor in the increased supply.

The Birth and Early Development of Meat Science

The land grant colleges established as the result of the Morrill Act led to the early creation of Departments of Animal Husbandry, but there is very little evidence of the teaching of meat courses or research before the beginning of the 20th century. Reference is made to the excellent history of the development of “meats” programs at land grant colleges in the Twenty-Fifth Anniversary History of the Reciprocal Meat Conference, presented at the Reciprocal Meat Conference of the American Meat Science Association in 1972. This record shows that the first college “meats” course was offered at the University of Minnesota in 1893 by Andrew Boss, and was entitled “Instruction in Killing, Dressing, Cutting and Curing Meat.” The first meat laboratory was built on the Minnesota campus about 1900. The University of Illinois offered a meats course in 1902, Michigan in 1907, Pennsylvania in 1912, Ohio in 1913, Cornell in 1915, Kentucky, Iowa and Colorado in 1918 and North Dakota in 1919. These programs led to what may be called the “significant twenties,” in which 10 other states began to give instruction in meats.

In reading the excellent documented history (referenced above) of the gradual but solid progress of meat science in the United States, one can’t help but conclude that meat science, early in its development, was blessed with strong leaders with great vision. First among them must have been Thomas Wilson, “the packer, agriculturist, and an apostle of cooperation who believed that all segments of the meat industry; packer, producer, retailer, and researchers were actually partners in a large and complicated undertaking.” His leadership led to the establishment of the National Live Stock and Meat Board in 1922. The second leader, perhaps second only because he was appointed by Thomas Wilson and the Board of Directors of the National Live Stock and Meat Board, was R.C. Pollock, the first general manager of the Meat Board.

Perhaps the propaganda at the time–labeling meat as being injurious to health, through supposed development of gout and rheumatism, and thus a major reason for creating the Meat Board was a blessing in disguise. It soon lead to the development of an organization that provided educational materials about meat and funds for research leading to the identity of nutrients in meat that are important in the human diet. R.C. Pollock, shortly after becoming general manager, called a conference of USDA and experiment station representatives, assembling the first generation of college meats men who undoubtedly were struggling to gain recognition among their animal production colleagues. Thus began a melding process that in later years has continued to bring meat scientists together. The occasion also provided for interaction at the time with the relatively few USDA meat scientists. The outcome of this meeting was a project entitled “A Study of the Factors Which Influence the Quality and Palatability of Meat;” the title of which was later changed to “Cooperative Meat Investigations.” A special report to the Society of Animal Production in 1924 led the society to establish a committee designated as “The Committee on Cooperative Research” and an invitation to the state experiment stations to join in this cooperative effort. This became the nucleus for bringing the need for meat education and especially research to the attention of college administrators and Congress. This in part helped in the passage of significant legislation, the Purnell Act (1925), which provided funds for conducting investigations, “bearing directly on the production, manufacture, preparation, use, distribution and marketing of agricultural products.”

Subsequently, a meeting of USDA and 27 experiment station representatives, sponsored by the National Live Stock and Meat Board, led to joint research efforts. The need for meat grading was emphasized in these discussions and resulted in a USDA bulletin entitled “Market Classes and Grades of Dressed Beef” which led Congress to passing an act setting up the federal Meat Grading Service in 1925. Perhaps the most significant outcome of the meeting was the exchange of information about what research had been or was being done at other institutions. These exchanges and the reciprocation among the cooperators led to Review Committee reports and the publication of five volumes of Cooperative Meat Investigations between 1937 and 1946.

Again, R.C. Pollock, the idea man, felt that Intercollegiate Meat Judging Contests would be highly educational for college students, and would bring greater focus upon the opportunities for them in the meat industry. He bounced the idea off Thomas Wilson and some of the first-generation meats men, and, as expected, received their support. Thomas E. Wilson and Company provided the support to initiate the first contest in 1927 at the International Livestock Exposition in Chicago. Interest spread and successful collegiate contests led to the establishment of FFA, Home Economics and 4-H meat judging contests.

During the 1930’s, there was substantial increase in the number of colleges offering instruction, engaging in meat research and taking part in the Cooperative Meat Conferences. The Meat Board and the conference established a Meat Cooking Committee, thus bringing interaction between home economics and meats men. This was also the period when the Warner-Bratzler meat shear was developed. Significantly, it is still used as one of the more reliable means for measuring meat tenderness.

The Rapid Expansion Years

Although the significant 20’s represented a decade of recognition for meat education and research, one must recognize that “meats men” became meat scientists during the rapid expansion and development of the field during the 1950’s and early 1960’s. Typically, animal husbandry departments in the late 1940’s had no more (and usually less) than one full-time equivalent in meat instruction and research. A few departments had some part-time effort in meat extension. This situation rather suddenly changed with additional funding for research from 1950 to about 1965. Likewise, the large influx of college students and the recognition of opportunities for careers in the meat industry led to expanded state budgetary support for hiring additional staff. Research support through USDA (Hatch funds), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), USDA Competitive Grant Program, other federal agencies and industry grants led to substantial growth in the number of graduate students and thus to the growth of research programs.

An increased interest in beef carcass grading after World War II and the introduction of USDA pork carcass grades in the early 1950’s led to a rapid expansion of carcass shows (later called Quality Meat Contests) at national, state and county livestock shows. These contests expanded the role of meat scientists to that of extension education for producers. Also during the period, meat extension activities began to include the needs of small meat processors and consumers. At about the same time, meat scientists became heavily involved in the search for more objective methods for measuring the lean-to-fat ratios in live animals and carcasses; such as back fat probes, ultrasonics, K-40 counters and specific gravity determinations. Likewise, objective measurements for meat quality characteristics, muscle water holding capacity, color, quantities of marbling and additional methods for measuring meat tenderness were developed. The objective measurements of muscle and their correlation to carcass composition led to prediction equations for carcasses and subsequently to the development of yield grades.

In the 1950’s, meat packers sold beef in carcass form (fore and hind quarters) and some in the form of wholesale cuts. This began to change in the 1960’s and 70’s when innovative packers began to further process wholesale cuts into boneless cuts, which today has resulted in boxed beef. Further processing of beef and pork started a trend toward merchandising a greater portion of meat in the form of processed meats. Accommodating this trend was the development of automated and continuous processing of sausage products. Thus it was not unexpected that meat scientists both in academia and in industry began to research problems facing meat processors, such as color and moisture retention, eating quality and shelf life. Noticeably, meat industry research facilities and personnel grew rather rapidly during this period. Industry saw the need for this research and established the American Meat Research Institute to serve American Meat Institute members. Early on its research efforts related to food safety issues.

The growth of programs in meat research during this period highly complemented the instruction and extension programs and clearly signaled that the “meats” field was reaching maturity. Whereas in the 1940’s there were less than six “meat” scientists with Ph.D.’s, the 1950’s and 60’s saw a many-fold increase in meat scientists with training in many of the basic sciences, such as biochemistry, microbiology, histology and physiology. Many meat scientists in colleges became members of Food Science Departments, thus changing in many cases the focus of their research.

The Development of Muscle Biology

Carcass composition, meat-quality studies and meat processing (primarily meat curing) dominated the research emphasis in the 1940’s and the 1950’s. After the development of USDA yield grades for swine, beef and sheep carcasses, consumers became concerned about fat-to-muscle ratios in retail cuts. This concern became greater with each succeeding year. In the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, a pronounced change started to take place in meat research. This was a period in which graduate students working towards Ph.D.’s were receiving more training in the basic sciences, such as biochemistry, microbiology, and histology, and in fields related to meat science such as food science, food safety and marketing. Along with this training and the influx of new techniques and scientific equipment, research became more basic. Applied problems were identified that could not be solved without knowing more about the “why” of scientific events. It was the beginning of an era that third- and now fourth-generation meat scientists refer to as “muscle biology.” Since the early 1970’s, many new topics have been featured at the Reciprocal Meat Conferences: for instance, animal growth as it relates to live-weight gain and body composition, exotic beef breeds and their genetic potential and physiological maturity variations in meat animals. As evidence of further basic research emphasis, the conference established a biochemistry and biophysics committee that developed such topics as the structure of membranes, the properties of the sarcolemma, the possible role of sarcoplasmic reticulum in postmortem muscle and muscle glycolysis. This was to be followed in the early 1980’s by the influence of hormones and hormone-like agents upon growth, and subsequently quantitative and quality differences in carcasses. This was followed in the 1990’s with recombinant DNA techniques, muscle cell cultures and mechanisms of muscle proteases.

The microbiology of meats received relatively little attention in the early days of meat science. Microbiological research expanded in the 1970’s and 80’s with greater public concern about food safety and the increase in meat scientists with microbiological training. Microbiological standards received considerable attention. Special emphasis during this period was given to food poisoning topics such as salmonellosis, clostridium perfrigens, botulism, and staphylococcus. Recently, listeriosis and campylobacter food poisoning have become important areas of emphasis. In the 1990’s, E. coli 0157:H7 provided the impetus for the initiation of HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Point Control system). Since the advent of self-service, packaging materials and techniques have resulted in studies related to microbiological growth, the retention of color and other quality characteristics.

The concern over food additives, and especially those used in the production of meat animals and the processing and preservation of meat, led to such research as sulfa residues in pork, the nitrite content of cured products and the preservation of meat through the use of irradiation.

Food engineering became a new dimension of food science, and the modification of meat products became important as the meat industry saw the need to fabricate less-demanded muscles in the carcass into restructured products that were more uniform in appearance and eating qualities. Considerable basic research pertaining to protein binding and the addition of binding agents aided these engineering efforts.

Nutritional concerns about the role of meat in the diet, leading to the establishment of the National Live Stock and Meat Board in 1922 and the research that followed, proved meat to be an excellent source of protein, the B vitamins and minerals, especially iron and zinc. All seemed serene until heart disease concerns surfaced in the 1970’s and 80’s. Many researchers and the medical profession claimed that meat, with its saturated fatty acids and cholesterol content, was detrimental to health. Topics such as “Diet and Heart Disease,” “Diet and Heart Risk” and “Diet and Hypertension” became part of the Reciprocal Meat Conference programs. This has led to joint research efforts by meat scientists and other scientists, nutritionists and biochemists to seek the truth.

Reciprocal Meat Conference

The war years stopped progress in the development of meat investigations and education. But when World War II ended, R.C. Pollock felt strongly about the need for meats men to have annual conferences, and gained support for developing a conference to replace the no-longer functioning Cooperative Meat Investigations. At this point in time, a number of second-generation meats men–who had received training under such mentors as Beard, Boss, Brown, Bull, Francioni, Helser, Loeffel, Mackintosh, Oliver, Tomhave, Trowbridge, and Wilford–came onto the scene, so the corps of meats men began to grow rapidly. Pollock set up a Committee which led to the first Reciprocal Meat Conference in 1948, held in Chicago with 46 in attendance including personnel from 29 land grant colleges, the USDA, and the Meat Board. This provided and still continues to be an opportunity for meat scientists as teachers, researchers and extension specialists to become better acquainted, and to exchange ideas and experiences regarding methods of teaching, research techniques and extension methods. R.C. Pollock hand-picked W.H. Tomhave, one of the first teachers of “meats” courses at Pennsylvania State University, to become the General Chairman of the conference: a man with good organizational skills and diplomacy. The Reciprocal Meat Conference Programs during the 1950’s were typically developed by Beef, Pork, Lamb and Veal Evaluation Committees. Meat quality topics were developed by a Research Methods Committee that pertained to experimental design, meat tenderness and other palatability factors.

Increased participation in the Intercollegiate Meat Judging contests after World War II led to the establishment of a Meat Judging and Manual Committee and topics on the program of RMC. Also during this period “meats” men provided leadership in establishing live animal evaluation clinics. These clinics and meat judging contests led to the development of Meat Animal Evaluation Contests by R.G. Kauffman in 1969. Also the Recommended Guidelines for Carcass Evaluation were published by AMSA.

The Reciprocal Meat Conference was highly guarded by meats men from colleges and the USDA and was essentially a closed organization until 1953. Members at that time wisely expanded its membership to the staff of the American Meat Institute Foundation, the Animal Branch of the quartermaster Food and Container Institute, and subsequently to meat industry researchers. Perhaps of equal significance to the establishment of the conference was the publication of the proceedings of the conference–again an idea strongly supported by R.C. Pollock. It is of note that the Meat Board provided all of the costs of the conference until 1955, when it was decided to charge a registration fee to defray part of the expenses.

Many facets of meat research, particularly the specialized basic research efforts during the 1970’s and early 1980’s, began to splinter scientists attending Reciprocal Meat Conferences. The word “reciprocal” began to lose its meaning, as evidenced by a lack of attendance and participation in the programs falling outside the interests of scientists attending the meeting. Two significant developments in the structuring of the Reciprocal Meat Conference program were initiated. The first gave greater emphasis to reciprocation between speakers and those in attendance through the establishment of reciprocation sessions by A.W. Kotula and T.P. Ringkob on timely topics. The second resulted from the recommendations of a committee appointed to look at the problem of polarization within AMSA. The committee recommended that the structuring of the RMC program be developed around a theme-type concept “in which both basic and applied aspects of a broad topic would be presented within a single session” of RMC, thus bringing the fundamental and practical aspects together. In addition, entrants in the graduate student research poster competition should display their knowledge of both the basic and the applied aspects of their research.

The Reciprocal Meat Conference was truly the structure that brought meat scientists together, led to the development of the American Meat Science Association and helped establish relationships among scientists worldwide.

Meat Industry Research Conference

The American Meat Institute in 1924 established a research laboratory at the University of Chicago through a stimulus of grants made by Thomas E. Wilson. In 1944 the AMI voted to establish an independent organization to carry out research and education in livestock production, processing and utilization, thus the American Meat Institute Foundation began operations in 1947.

A very important development leading to the better education of meats men was the offer by the American Meat Institute Foundation to sponsor a “Conference on Research” which continued annually under this name until 1959 when it was titled the American Meat Institute Conference. In 1964, the American Meat Institute Foundation invited the American Meat Science Association to jointly sponsor the conference. The name was then changed to “Meat Industry Research Conference.” This conference is highly regarded by university and industry meat scientists–both for the special short courses offered and the discussion of timely topics of importance to the meat industry.

American Meat Science Association

Dr. Ernest Briskey championed the recognition of the field of Meat Science through efforts at the annual Reciprocal Meat Conference in 1964 at the University of Wisconsin in the establishment of the American Meat Science Association.

Meat scientists at the time seemed ready for this recognition and today the association is recognized as a major science association among the other associations in the animal and food sciences. Donald Kinsman, at the 1996 Reciprocal Meat Conference, in his AMSA International Award Lecture provided an excellent history of the association. The growth of the association has increased steadily from 30 to 400 in the 1960’s to nearly l000 today, with about 15% of its membership from other countries.

First-generation meat scientists began to be recognized for their contributions in 1956, when the Reciprocal Meat Conference started recognizing individuals’ contributions to meat science through Signal Service Awards. The founding of AMSA and its rapid growth in membership led to the initiation of several other awards as meat scientists began to specialize. In 1965, awards were established for teaching, research and extension-industry service and were expanded in following years, Pollock Award-1977; Meat Processing Award-1978; International Award-1989; AMSA Achievement Award for Young Members-1992; Intercollegiate Meat Judging Meritorious Service-1993.

The National Live Stock and Meat Board, the truly great benefactor of the RMC and the American Meat Science Association is now merged with the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. This has led the Association to conclude that it has matured to a point where it can now become an independent organization. In this form, it can provide objective information through research and education for all segments of the livestock and meat industry as well as consumers.

International Participation

The rapid growth of Meat Science in the U.S. paralleled a world that seemed to become smaller through commercial air travel, and meat scientists around the world began to meet with their counterparts in other lands. This was a very significant development, which led foreign students to U.S. meat science laboratories to pursue higher degrees or post-doctoral studies; likewise, U.S. students began traveling to other countries for post-doctoral research experience.

AMSA has hosted international meetings on two occasions. In 1980, the 26th European Meeting of Meat Research Workers (EMMRW) was held in Colorado Springs, Colorado. In 1995, the 41st International Congress of Meat Science and Technology (IcoMST) was held in San Antonio, Texas (the EMMRW was the predecessor to the ICoMST).

The EMMRW was a six-day long meeting and attracted participants from 36 countries. There were 14 technical sessions plus a major symposium entitled “Meat in Nutrition and Health.” The ICoMST was hosted jointly by AMSA and the Meat Board, and included the RMC. It was attended by 629 delegates and 146 non-delegates representing 50 countries. More than 325 scientific presentations were made. A highlight was the one-day symposium “Global Issues Impacting Demand for Meat.”

By hosting these meetings, AMSA was established as a truly international association. Much of the success of these meetings is due to R.B. Sleeth, who served as Chairman of both organizing committees.

Education and Communications

Education and communications always received high priority from the early Reciprocal Meat Conferences, and have been given special attention during the 1970’s, 80’s and into the 90’s. Meat extension techniques and problems have been an important part of Reciprocal Meat Conference programs. Within the last five years, timely guidelines have been published on such topics as Guidelines for Sensory, Physical and Chemical Measurements of Ground Beef; Guidelines for Carcass Composition, and Guidelines for Sensory, Physical and Chemical Measurements of Ham and a similar guideline for bacon. Newsletters, first edited by L.E. Kunkle (Ohio State University), were published from 1957 under the auspices of the Reciprocal Meat Conference and later by the AMSA, have been routinely sent to the membership. Likewise, a directory of the membership developed by Charles Adams (University of Nebraska) has been kept current since 1956. Since 1953, the RMC, and now the AMSA, has had in place a Career Opportunities and Placement Service Committee that regularly communicates with the membership through the newsletter. As the AMSA matured, it joined the American Society of Animal Science, American Dairy Science Association and the Poultry Science Association in forming an Intersociety Presidents Council to better coordinate activities of importance to animal agriculture. CAST (Council for Agricultural Science and Technology) was established by agricultural scientists interested in providing position papers of pending national problems relating to agriculture. AMSA joined CAST in 1978, and the Federation of Scientific Agricultural Societies in 1981. During the 1990’s, AMSA has actively begun hosting Short Courses on a variety of subjects, such as HAACP. Within the last couple of years the use of the Internet to transmit and share information resources has rapidly developed and AMSA has an active Home Page located at http://www.meatscience.org.


Thomas E. Wilson and R.C. Pollock, men with ideas and great leadership qualities, could not have possibly envisioned the development of meat education and research that has taken place since 1922. In The 25th Anniversary History of the Reciprocal Meat Conference, (1972), there is a section entitled “The Past is Prologue” written by committee chairman D.M. Kinsman, that warrants reading. A quotation of the first sentence places the development of meat science in the U.S. in perspective. “In the evolution of every great institution there is generally a need, or an idea, followed by a period of development, and an era of maturation before it establishes its place in history.” U.S. meat science now has its place in history, thanks to the many who have made it happen.