Long before we begin practicing the art of the summer barbeque, academics are hard at work making sure the meat we eat is tasty, safe, and affordable.
Alongside the beakers and instruments in a unique University of Florida laboratory are freezers full of unexpected specimens: ordinary grocery store meat.
"This is our research kitchen," said Research Coordinator Larry Eubanks.
On this particular day, Eubanks was hosting a blind taste test of summer sausage.
Panelists are escorted into cubicles and fed a paper plate of samples. The lights are dim so their eyes don't sway them.
The question is simple, Eubanks says: "'Do you like it or do you dislike it?' It's their preference, that's all it is."
Just as each variety of apple or orange tastes slightly different, Eubanks said the human tongue is sensitive to variations in meat. Taste tests conducted here help determine which particular animals are more palatable to people.
"A lot of the work we do here is looking at different breeds." He said.
Nearby, another test is underway—on a steak.
"Research and development," said graduate student Ryan Dijkhuis.
Dijkhuis slices into a filet, then bores holes through it with a brass probe.
"I'm kind of going in at a 45 degree angle," he says.
The result is six earplug-sized cylinders of steak, which will be tested for tenderness.
Dijkhuis placed each piece into a specialized instrument that cuts through the cylinder while measuring the exact force it takes.
"Really what your teeth would be doing by biting," Dijkhuis said.
A computer spits out a graph – exacting detail that well-known food companies seek out. Often, they send samples of their meat here for objective testing.
Meat science professor Dwain Johnson, who oversees the operation, says tests like these are important in ensuring consumers get what they're paying for.
"Get a real value for their money, we're trying to help them do that," he said.
Johnson's team helped develop the Flat Iron steak, which has become one of the country's most popular cuts of meat. By reexamining butchering techniques, Johnson and other scientists were able to take a cut that was previously relegated to ground beef and turn it into a lucrative (yet affordable) steak.
Johnson, who said he first saw ‘his' steak at the Applebee's restaurant chain, said his research is rewarding since it can be recognized at the dinner table.
"You're having an impact on the here and now," he said, "not some abstract thing that's going to happen 10 or 15 years from now."
Johnson said the better food processors are at decreasing waste, the better meat prices should be.
"It put money in people's pockets," he said.
Yet, Johnson conceded it is unlikely consumers have any idea this kind of detailed food research is taking place every single day.
"They have no clue," he said. "If we're under the radar that's fine."
Eubanks, the research coordinator agreed – anonymity is acceptable.
"We have a lot of fun doing it," he said.
FOX 13 / WTVT-TV
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