'Well, here's the deal," Davey Griffin, associate professor of animal science at Texas A&M University, told me when he learned I planned to show up at an Oak Cliff packing plant for the Southwestern Intercollegiate Meat Judging Contest. "It's not a spectator sport."
Surely there's a promoter somewhere who could figure out how to glamorize the hours spent huddled around beef carcasses and hunched over hams, checking for deckle and measuring kidney fat. Yet tedium's not the only issue turning off fans: Contests are conducted in coolers, chilled to the temperature demanded by the meat, not the student judges.
"Their little toes and fingers get really cold," says contest superintendent Randy Hines, a former coach who's become a fixture on the judging circuit. Hines served as my designated host at Columbia Packing Co., steering me through the various rooms where shivering, white-coated students worked in silence; judging groups comprise representatives from competing teams, so wise students keep their findings to themselves.
But knowing nobody is watching hasn't deterred hundreds of college students from devoting themselves to mastering the art of meat evaluation. The ones talented enough to make the team stage marathon practice sessions, logging hours in the meat locker after classes and before games on football Saturdays. They spend days packed together in 15-passenger vans, traveling to prestigious competitions from the Rockies to the Alleghenies, where they crowd into refrigerators at daybreak for intense, eight-hour tests of knowledge and stamina in which bunched-up rivals assess various cuts before dashing off two-page handwritten defenses of their conclusions. (Meat judging may be the last bastion of good penmanship: "We spend a lot of time on handwriting," Griffin says. "Commas become important.") Unlike College Bowl, the answers can't be memorized or looked up after the contest: The students' findings are measured against the determinations of USDA meat inspectors.
And stresses aren't confined to the cooler. Coaches are quick to point out meat judging is an extracurricular pastime, like French club or the spirit squad. As excuses for low quiz scores and skipped homework assignments go, studying cattle sinew is no more legitimate than planning a fraternity party—even at land grant schools. Classwork comes first, and coaches insist team members keep up their grades. But most livestock geeks don't need to be asked: It's not uncommon for student meat judges to make the honor roll.
"The students we get are top-end kids," Griffin says.
The payoff for the most successful contestants is an industry job: Participants have so firmly set their sights at long range that I spoke to three people associated with meat judging before I stumbled upon someone who could fully explain how the season-long scoring system works. It's a big deal for a judge or team to accumulate the most points over the course of eight contests. At the Southwestern Contest, the year's second event, much of the chatter centered on Colorado State University's impressive performance at the National Western Contest two weeks prior. But those scores still haven't been posted online, suggesting eventual employment remains the much bigger deal.
It's almost certain the last steak you ate at a chain restaurant was selected by someone who learned how to read a side of beef as a student meat judge. Among other assignments, intercollegiate judging alumni help determine the tastes that surface on the nation's plates by buying product for the restaurants, grocers and other concessionaires that employ them. If, say, Applebee's decided it wanted to serve extremely lean beef with earthy undertones, it's likely an employee with student judging experience would be charged with finding the right meat and keeping the steak's flavor profile—which would ultimately become familiar to many, many Americans—consistent.
What students don't do as judges is weigh in on whether a steak should be lean or fatty, funky or clean-tasting. They're slaves to USDA standards, which leave little wiggle room for a rogue judge to decide if beef is more valuable when it comes from an older animal with a fused lumbar column. That's not an acceptable case to make, no matter how neatly it's handwritten. After safety, the cattle industry is most interested in what price an animal brings, and it's not up to a student to revise how that number's reached.
With its commitment to conformity and rote learning, meat judging starkly resembles the sort of pedagogy that grandparents remember from their youths and alarmist television news shows claim only survives in Asian nations that produce children who outscore Americans on academic tests. Not surprisingly, those involved in meat judging believe the program teaches more than meat appreciation.
"It's a great way to learn, and it's not just about meat," says Griffin, who was a student judge in 1976. "I tell my students, about 40 percent of what you need is knowledge of the subject. A lot of what they learn is decision-making and having to stand on their own two feet."
Motioning at a cluster of working student judges in different colored hard hats, Hines says tallying marbling—which, like all evaluation tasks, is a hands-off activity—isn't nearly as difficult as translating findings into persuasive essays.
"Once you understand the basic concepts and philosophies of why we do what we do, beyond that, you have to have the ability to communicate," says Hines, who credits meat judging with demonstrating the importance of responsibility, leadership and preparedness to college students only a few years removed from carpools and after-school snacks.
Reflecting, he adds: "You look at a lot of things students can be involved in and this seems like one of the better ones."
The first meat judging competition was held in 1927 at the International Livestock Exposition in Chicago. The event was dreamed up by the first general manager of the Meat Board, an industry group that agitated for increased meat education and fought the public perception that meat wasn't healthy. R.C. Pollock, still known as the "idea man" around the American Meat Science Association, believed judging could bring glory to "meats men" who didn't command the same respect as producers.
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Meat judging hasn't changed radically since Pollock's days, but Hines says the sport's evolved to keep pace with the meat industry. Judges are now forced to scrutinize pork more closely than they did 20 years ago, when the average American pig was inadvisably lean. The growing pork export market and renewed emphasis on flavor have helped improve pig quality, which means student judges must be attuned to more nuances than their predecessors who sized up swine during the Reagan administration.
While grades exist for pork, most consumers aren't familiar with them: They've learned the names of heritage breeds from upscale menus, but few could guess what separates a utility pork chop from an acceptable pork chop. Hines believes it's possible pork, lamb and chicken producers could one day follow the beef industry's lead, adopting and publicizing more stringent grading systems.
"I don't think we'll have banana judging," he says with a laugh.
But the need to reassure eaters spooked by safety scares and counteract the "Meatless Monday" movement, which depicts animal flesh as an unhealthy edible option, may call for an R.C. Pollock moment. Other industries could very well step up their grading criteria to win back consumer confidence. And, if they do, it will be up to student meat judges to master them.