Meat science is more than meets the eyeBy all accounts, Dr. Dean Henderson of Hudson more than deserves his recent accolade. Henderson, who retired from UW-River Falls in 2001 after 33 years, was one of three inducted into the Wisconsin Meat Industry Hall of Fame on May 7.
By: Margaret Ontl, Hudson Star-Observer
By all accounts, Dr. Dean Henderson of Hudson more than deserves his recent accolade. Henderson, who retired from UW-River Falls in 2001 after 33 years, was one of three inducted into the Wisconsin Meat Industry Hall of Fame on May 7.
Joining him was Louis Muench, a former student of his, and Dr. Larry Borchert, who worked for Oscar Mayer for over 30 years and is now an adjunct professor at UW-Madison.
Henderson’s life growing up on the family ranch — 2.5 acres within the village limits of Garner, Iowa — spurred a lifelong interest that turned into a passion for him in college.
“I always liked livestock,” said Henderson, who was an active member of 4-H and FFA. His dad was the county agent.
“My brother and I used to drive our sheep up and down the street to other areas within the village that had open grass.” Henderson raised Hampshire sheep and Hereford hogs for his projects and knew he wanted to study animal science when he went off to college at Iowa State University in Ames.
“Meat science was part of the animal science major. If you are going to produce an animal that is used for food you should know something about the food end of the business.” It is a theory Henderson put into practice when he taught his own students.
“When I was a freshman my best friend took me to a meat judging workshop,” said Henderson. “Something clicked there. Something there sparked an interest.”
That spark lit a passion in the young student that burns to this day. Henderson went on to work in the school meat laboratory for the next four years, slaughtering, cutting and assisting in research, most of which was on live animal production. He also continued to participate in judging.
When he was nearing graduation, he had three job offers but one of his professors offered a fourth idea, a graduate assistantship.
“The professor grew up in my home town and was five years ahead of me in 4-H,” said Henderson. “I wasn’t going to slough off in his class. I was going to do well no matter what.”
“I was on probation because of my grades but I made it,” said Henderson. “I figured if I flunked out, I could still get a job. Five years later, I left with a Ph.D.”
That was in 1968, also the year he started his new career at UW-River Falls teaching meat science and introductory animal science courses. By 1969 he was responsible for the development of a food science curriculum. The popularity of the area grew, causing it to be renamed the Animal and Food Science Department. According to Henderson’s biography published for the award, he was the lead instructor of 14 courses, many of which he developed himself.
About his career in teaching, Henderson said, “I think the neatest part of working with young people is watching them mature, grow into good citizens and be productive; it’s kind of kept me going. The students paid money to go to school so they deserved my best effort. That’s the only reason I was there, to teach, advise and watch them grow. I have that passion. I love teaching and I really enjoyed going to class.”
While at River Falls, his passion for the meat industry continued as he inspired students in class, continued to judge and became a nationally and internationally respected consultant.
Henderson traveled to Korea, Belgium, Canada, Russia, Colombia and Venezuela as a consultant and teacher.
While in Venezuela he observed a product designed for the poor – ham, water and soy protein combined to create a ham-type product.
“Every once in a while you might have a bite of real ham,” said Henderson of the product. “It looked and tasted like ham. This particular plant was doing a lot of sophisticated work.”
On a trip to Korea, his sponsor advised him to be prepared to offer very basic information to his audience. Thankfully, his host gave him a tour of some of their facilities the day he arrived. He discovered that they were already doing “some really good stuff,” which resulted in his spending the evening rewriting his presentation and reshuffling his slides.
“I learned to never go to a country without seeing what they are already doing.”
According to Henderson, food production of any kind involves chemistry. Whether it is an animal raised for meat or dairy, or plants for consumption, the success of the product is due largely to what goes into the animal or plant and how it is processed afterwards.
“It is what the animal digests and gets for nutrition that can enhance the final product,” said Henderson. “The body works based on chemistry. Muscle development, everything that happens — it is all chemistry.”
This is true for the other half of the industry, the meat processing. Over the years Henderson has witnessed changes throughout the industry.
“The food safety side has changed dramatically and that is for the betterment of everybody,” said Henderson. “The meat industry has changed a great deal. When I started, most of the big processors were located in the big cities. Now, they are out in the countryside where the animals are produced. Also, when I started, the big plants processed all species; today they are species specific.”
Since his retirement, Henderson has continued in the field of meat science, teaching two-day workshops at Iowa State for meat processors, judging and conducting third-party audits of processing plants.
“I was struck by how good a job they do,” said Henderson. “Their emphasis is on food safety. We have the safest food supply in the world but that doesn’t mean we can’t get better.”
For nearly 40 years Henderson spent summers carcass judging at 4-H fairs around the region.
Once, the animal is sold at auction, Henderson would judge the animal after it was dressed out.
“The small processors are the key to this process,” said Henderson. “Some of the kids could not go into the cooler and look, but it was part of the improvement process.”
Today he still revels in judging processed meats.
“First you look at the outside appearance — after all, it is a show,” said Henderson. “You cut it open, look for air and gelatin pockets, the fat-to-lean ratio and particle definition. Then you taste it. Tasting includes, flavor, mouth feel and tenderness, according to Henderson.
“Taste is what keeps the customer coming back. It always amazes me that the cream (of the processors) rises to the top time after time. It’s getting harder all the time.”
Wisconsin has more meat processors than any other state and includes past Hall of Fame inductees Phillip Armour (the founders of Hillshire Farms), Jack Link, John, George and Ronald Klements, Oscar G. Mayer, Edward and Milo Jones, Wallace Jerome and Fred Usinger.
So Henderson joins the lofty and historical figures in the industry, many of whom are now household names. Fellow 2009 inductee Louis Muench is president of Louie’s Finer Meats in Cumberland, where he has accrued over 300 awards from the meat industry.
“That was very special to be inducted with him,” said Henderson of his former student. “That is what makes it a wonderful profession. I had the best job in the world for me – to work with young adults and work in this industry. They are good people, good, hard-working people.”
Henderson currently lives in Hudson with his wife, Linda. They have five children and 13 grandchildren.