In spring 2007, Ray Riley ’79 ’81 received a call from the New York Times asking for beef jerky samples. Riley manages the Rosenthal Meat Science and Technology Center at Texas A&M University, where students, faculty and staff manufactured and sold a signature recipe jerky alongside other beef products in-house. Riley thought little of the request until months later when a feature appeared in the paper dubbing the center’s jerky the best in the nation.

“The curled husks looked like the bark harvested from a magical meat tree,” the feature read. “There was an outdoorsy smokiness on the nose and a slowly unfolding flavor with a fierce black pepper finish.” With that mouth-watering endorsement, carnivores across America flooded the center’s phone with orders. “We sold more jerky that following month than we did the previous year!” Riley said.

The generosity of E.M. "Manny" Rosenthal '42 has made the Texas A&M meat science program the staple it is today.

Though state and national press coverage has mostly underscored its jerky (still sold “the old-fashioned way” over the phone) in recent years, the Rosenthal Center’s focus remains on leading meat science education, research and public service. Research from the center has been especially influential, impacting more than 70% of beef, lamb and pork consumers in the United States today, while the program has also produced more Meat Industry Hall of Fame inductees than any other American university. With plans for a new, cutting-edge facility underway, the meat science program looks to retain its status as the strongest in the nation.

Bull Market

As the first land-grant institution in a state historically dependent on its beef cattle industry, Texas A&M set its sights on meat science research in its infancy and has remained a leader since. Before the Rosenthal Center’s construction, cattle were routinely harvested and processed on campus in the Animal Industries Building, which now hosts the university’s nuclear engineering department. During World War II, students and staff processed 9,500 head of livestock in the building, selling more than four million pounds of meat for roughly $300,000 to aid the war effort.

In time, the meat science program blossomed into the largest in the United States, lending much prestige to an already-preeminent animal science department in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. To further accommodate the program, a comprehensive 29,538-square-foot facility was constructed in 1983 and dedicated to former student E.M. "Manny" Rosenthal '42 four years later.

Before he came to Aggieland, Rosenthal worked for Standard Meat Co., which his father founded when Manny was 13. After earning his bachelor’s in animal science with a minor in business administration, Rosenthal served in the Army for three years in North Africa and Europe helping provide meat rations to fellow troops before returning to his father’s business. With his principled leadership and business acumen, Rosenthal helped build Standard Meat into a principal supplier to hotel, restaurant and military outlets.

Rosenthal gave back generously to the arts, the Jewish community and Texas A&M’s meat science program. In 1987, he established the United States’ first endowed meat sciences chair at Texas A&M. The first professor to hold the chair, Dr. Russell Cross ’72, enjoyed a special relationship with his benefactor. “Manny Rosenthal was a very good friend of mine,” Cross said. “He always had a love for Texas A&M and the Department of Animal Science especially.”

 

It’s What’s for Dinner

Since receiving Rosenthal’s chair, Cross has served in a variety of public and private sector roles, including administrator of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service and, from 2012 to 2017, head of the animal science department. With more than 250 published works on meat quality and safety under his belt, Cross is an authority on the kind of market-shifting research that defines Texas A&M’s meat science program.

Cross pointed to a rapid change in industry practice toward meat trimming as evidence of the program’s influence. “Let’s go back to the mid-’80s,” he said. “If you went to a retail store to buy a cut of beef, you might see a half-inch to three-quarters of an inch of external fat. They just didn’t trim the product at all.”

 

  • History of Texas A&M Meat Science

    Before the Rosenthal Center’s construction, cattle were routinely harvested and processed on campus in the Animal Industries Building. During World War II, students and staff processed 9,500 head of livestock in the building, selling more than four million pounds of meat for roughly $300,000 to aid the war effort.
  • Ray Riley '79 '81

    Ray Riley '79 '81 currently manages the meat science center and oversees the students, faculty and staff who help manufacture in-house beef products.
  • Learning the Trade

    In addition to selling beef products, the Rosenthal Meat Science and Technology Center has been instrumental in providing students with hands-on experience.
  • Dr. Jeff Savell '75

    Dr. Jeff Savell '75, University Distinguished Professor and current holder of the Rosenthal Chair, has been involved with the Texas A&M meat science program for more than 40 years. During those years, he has taught thousands of students through a number of classes, but principally ANSC 307: Meats, which has been taught at Texas A&M University since the 1920s.

A market research initiative conducted by Cross and Dr. Jeff Savell ’75 found strong consumer demand and nutritional benefits for leaner beef products. Within years of the researchers’ so-called “War on Fat,” industry leaders radically adjusted their production processes to eliminate excess fat on beef cuts before they ever reached delis and dinner plates.

Food safety has also maintained prominence in research efforts at Rosenthal. After a disastrous E. coli outbreak claimed the lives of four young Jack in the Box patrons in 1993, Texas A&M faculty formed the International Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) Alliance, which helps beef and poultry industry leaders implement preventative safety standards. Cross served as the alliance’s first CEO. “We are the go-to organization in the country for key regulatory aspects of food safety and food safety technology,” he said.

Cattle Class

Research is only one aspect of the meat science program’s mission; education and outreach are just as integral. Dr. Jeff Savell ’75 first became involved with the program as an undergraduate in 1971 and has been a faculty member for 43 years. During those years, he has taught thousands of students through a number of classes, but principally ANSC 307: Meats, which has been taught at Texas A&M University since the 1920s. He currently holds the Rosenthal Chair and is a University Distinguished Professor. “I want to help train and develop the next generation of young people to be the best versions of themselves in life,” Savell said.

For this generation, that means adapting to an increasingly urban and suburban student body with fewer Aggies hailing from rural areas each year. “We have the opportunity to reach students who may not come from a traditional agricultural background,” he said. “You don’t have to come from a farm or ranch to enter the meat science industry.”

Urban and suburban students are drawn to meat science for a variety of reasons, high among them a rock-steady demand for graduates. Students involved in internships and activities like Texas A&M’s meat judging team (which has produced 19 champions at national competitions since 1958, including Dr. Cross in 1970) are often exposed to industry professionals scouting for young talent. Savell fondly tells of students who were not considering a meat science career before taking his class who now work for major supermarket chains buying billions of dollars’ worth of beef. In addition to teaching Aggie students, Savell also leads outreach programs such as the in-depth, three-day Barbecue Summer Camp with Riley and Dr. Davey Griffin ’78. The camp regularly attracts participants from across the country, often hobbyists from less-than-rural career paths. “Before each camp, we like to guess how many I.T. people are attending,” Savell joked. He has a hunch for why people are stepping away from the desk and toward the smoke pit. “I think there's a deep desire to understand where their food comes from.”

 

Three Keys to Better BBQ w/ Ray Riley

  1. Get a good thermometer. “Temperature is everything. A professional pitmaster will know how hot his pit is by feel and time, but if you’re not so experienced, you better have a quality thermometer.”
  2. Don’t rush. “When you’re barbequing, it’s all about keeping it low and slow. You can set a time when you would like to eat, but the barbecue will be ready when it’s ready.”
  3. Safety first. “Never cross-contaminate. Always keep food safety in mind."

By the Horns

Today, faculty at the Rosenthal Center are still conducting leading-edge food safety research with infectious listeria outbreaks in their crosshairs. And while COVID-19 disrupted many of the center’s hands-on activities, department head Dr. Cliff Lamb noted that it provided an unlikely opportunity to experiment and innovate. “It challenged our faculty to translate their lessons into a distance learning format,” he said, “which could be a potentially vital development for getting quality information to beef cattle producers across the world.”

The Rosenthal Center continues to conduct food safety research as well as provide the community with high-quality beef products.

These challenges and opportunities, among others, galvanized plans for a new state-of-the-art facility to replace the current Rosenthal Center within the decade. The new meat science and technology center will include increased resources to conduct research, teaching and extension and will expand industry collaboration by allowing companies to use the space for testing. According to Riley, who has managed the Rosenthal Center since it opened its doors in 1983, the new facility will provide a necessary upgrade. “We’ll be able to better fulfill our mission,” he said.

Riley, like Savell and Cross, has enjoyed a lifelong connection to Texas A&M and its meat science program. He first visited campus to attend a practice meat judging contest in second grade and has called College Station home since his freshman year in 1975. The Aggie community has given Riley pride, and the Rosenthal Center and its mission has given him purpose. He appreciates the hubbub around the center’s jerky, but if the national press ever called again asking him about the people and hard work behind it, he might give them a story they could really chew on.

 

To learn how you can support the meat science program through construction of a new facility and other opportunities, contact Scott Jarvis ’00 at (979) 845-7491 or by submitting a message through the form below.

Contact:

Scott Jarvis '00

Director of Development-Division 2-AgriLife
College of Agriculture and Life Sciences
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