Dean of Meat Scientists

Gary Smith

Gary Smith, a first-generation college student who became an eminent meat scientist, visits the newly opened JBS Global Food Innovation Center in Honor of Gary & Kay Smith with a group of students attending the 2019 International Livestock Forum at CSU in January. Photo by John Eisele

Researcher who improved meat safety and quality is namesake of new wing of Animal Sciences Building

Raise the topic of sanitation with Gary Smith, and he will share an olfactory memory from his childhood in western Oklahoma: the overwhelming odor of Purex in his mother’s kitchen. When Smith was a schoolboy in the 1940s, his mom, Aneta, scoured kitchen surfaces with her favorite brand of household bleach, a habit that maintained health and hygiene in a rural farmhouse with no electricity and no indoor plumbing. The family butchered their own pigs, chickens, and beef cattle. They hand-milked 20 dairy cows every day. And much of that fresh meat and milk made its way through Aneta’s kitchen – the same place she turned out the chicken-fried steak that, to this day, is Smith’s favorite way to eat beefsteak.

Smith, at 80 years old, is known in academic and industry circles as the “dean of meat scientists” and has incorporated his personal stories into lessons for thousands of students who have passed through his classrooms and laboratories over five decades. The story about his mom’s use of household bleach is a standby in introductions to meat safety.

But that’s where he departs from homespun tales. Smith’s hard science on meat safety and quality helped drive a modern revolution in how carcasses are handled, inspected, packaged, and delivered through the supply chain to consumers. Today’s farm-to-table trend often focuses on the beginning and end of food production – the fresh veggies, engaging farm animals, and beautifully prepared meals. Smith’s science has targeted the processes in between. Protocols developed from his research quell foodborne pathogens and underlie consumer trust in U.S. packing-plant methods and safety controls that you might not even recognize while enjoying a steak, roast, chop, or burger sizzling from the grill. Yet, that trust is pivotal: If you don’t believe in the wholesomeness of food, you won’t buy or eat it.

There’s no doubt dietary options and choices often dominate public discourse, along with related environmental, health, moral, and socioeconomic concerns. Yet consumption patterns reveal an enduring need for advancements in meat safety and quality: In 2018, per capita consumption of poultry and red meat was expected to reach a record high in the United States, amounting to 222 pounds per person, with chicken, beef, and pork, in that order, leading the protein sector, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture forecasts.

Those patterns make safety and quality imperative. For this reason, Smith’s science – conveyed in more than 500 papers published in refereed journals – has been snapped up by fellow researchers, government inspectors, and the meat industry.

“Smith is an accomplished researcher, a gifted teacher, and legendary mentor to students, professors and technical specialists. … [He] is internationally recognized for his efforts in meat science and food safety,” according to The National Provisioner, a meat and poultry industry publication that named Smith to its 2016 list of 25 modern icons. He is one of just five university scientists on the list of national meat-industry leaders.

Another luminary named is Smith’s longtime colleague Temple Grandin, a renowned CSU professor and expert in humane animal handling who has gained insights into livestock behavior and welfare from the visual thinking connected to her autism. For years, the two had nearby offices in the Animal Sciences Building and talked at length about livestock welfare and other industry issues. Their conversations were often personally meaningful for Smith, he said, because he has a grandson with autism, and Grandin offered advice about medical care and strategies to support him at home. “I’m really honored to be on the same list of industry leaders,” Grandin said. “Dr. Smith has always been a really forward-thinker, and we need forward-thinkers.”

Some of Smith’s most significant teaching and research occurred from 1990 to 2010, when he worked at Colorado State and was awarded the title of University Distinguished Professor, an honor granted to a small number of CSU’s most productive and globally influential scientists. While at CSU, he helped establish the Center for Meat Safety and Quality. He held the Monfort Chair in Meat Science, established by the beef magnates of Greeley, Colo., to support Smith’s research. He also advised more than 80 graduate students, many of whom are now meat industry leaders themselves.

“His impact on the industry is absolutely astounding,” said Keith Belk, a CSU professor who has worked closely with Smith and succeeded him in holding the Monfort Chair. Belk discussed his colleague by phone from the International Livestock Congress, a well-known annual meeting in Houston. “As I look around, I think Dr. Smith has had an influence on at least 70 percent of people in the room,” Belk said.

In recognition of his work at Colorado State, Smith and his late wife, Kay, are namesakes of the new JBS Global Food Innovation Center in Honor of Gary & Kay Smith, a $20 million wing of the CSU Animal Sciences Building that opened this spring with state-of-the-art facilities for teaching and research in all aspects of meat processing. The center also includes a spacious test kitchen and an outlet for retail sales. Smith said he wanted the center to bear his wife’s name alongside his own to honor their 48-year marriage and a life partnership that provided the foundation for his scientific success. She died in 2013 of complications from Parkinson’s disease.

In 1990, Smith was recruited to Colorado State after working for 21 years at Texas A&M University, where he was a professor and head of a rival Department of Animal Science, with a faculty appointment in the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Meat Inspection Training Center. At CSU, Smith and his team showed how innovation may arise from crisis. It began with a cataclysmic event, which many industry insiders reference with a single proper noun: Jack in the Box.

In January 1993, a deadly outbreak of Escherichia coli O157:H7 surfaced when a group of children were hospitalized near Seattle for treatment of an acute kidney condition triggered by the pathogenic microorganism. The bacteria had spread through contaminated hamburgers that were undercooked and served at dozens of Jack in the Box fast-food restaurants, according to a summary in Food Safety News. The foodborne pathogen sickened more than 700 people in four Western states, most in Washington, and sent more than 170 people to the hospital. Four patients died. Investigators linked the tainted hamburger to a supplier in California and identified six slaughterhouses in the United States and Canada as possible sources of the bacteria.

With the outbreak, the specter of foodborne illness commanded public attention, in part because many victims were children. It was an urgent call to action for scientists, government inspectors, and the entire meat industry. Attention focused on mandatory use of Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point management systems, which are designed to ensure food safety through a series of sanitation procedures and inspections. HACCP systems had been developed before the E. coli outbreak of 1993, yet had not been fully implemented with the goal of reducing foodborne pathogens throughout the red meat supply chain, from slaughterhouses to processors and distributors. A nationwide regulatory overhaul filled the safety gaps, according to a final ruling filed in July 1996 by the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service. (Officials also underscored the critical need for cooking meat to temperatures that kill potentially harmful bacteria.)

“We felt like we were accomplishing something and protecting people. We did more research at Colorado State during that period than everywhere else put together. I was absolutely so lucky to come here when there were lots of problems to solve.” – Gary Smith, University Distinguished Professor Emeritus

Imagine this phone call shortly after the outbreak came to light: on one end, Smith, the meat-safety researcher who had trained federal inspectors; on the other, his scientific benefactor Ken Monfort, the dominant Greeley cattle feeder and meat packer who supplied fresh beef to some of the nation’s largest outlets. Smith was already studying food safety measures at Monfort’s plant; he was poised to broaden that work. “Kenny called and said, ‘Meet me at the plane. We’re flying to Chicago,’” Smith said. The two flew on Monfort’s jet to McDonald’s corporate headquarters outside Chicago.

There, they discussed training and implementation of HACCP protocols at all the plants supplying hamburger to the fast-food giant. “The CEO looks at me and says, ‘Kenny tells me you can teach everybody in North America about HACCP,'” Smith recalled.

With that, Smith and his colleagues cemented their role in modern food-safety reforms and related research into meat quality. They provided technical training that allowed major meat suppliers to fully implement HACCP systems. The scientists also developed and evaluated sequential decontamination procedures – known as multiple-hurdle processes – to rid carcasses and meat products of potentially harmful microorganisms, including E. coli, Salmonella, and Listeria monocytogenes. These hurdles include acid and hot-water washes, combined with cooling, preservation, and packaging methods, all performed at specific temperatures with specific equipment, which itself is sanitized under specific protocols.

“It was an exciting period of time. We felt like we were accomplishing something and protecting people,” Smith said. “We did more research at Colorado State during that period than everywhere else put together. I was absolutely so lucky to come here when there were lots of problems to solve.”

John Sofos, a microbiologist and University Distinguished Professor Emeritus who worked on many research and training projects with Smith, recalled the shared pursuit of problem-solving among faculty and students in the Center for Meat Safety and Quality starting in the early ’90s. “We worked very hard together and did studies continually. It was an exciting time,” Sofos said, echoing his colleague. “Our objective was improving public health, and I think we contributed something.” Lynn Delmore, a microbiologist, adjunct professor, and food-safety consultant, earned her Ph.D. while working with the group and called it “a dream team.”

Smith, now a visiting professor at both Colorado State and Texas A&M, continues to closely follow current issues and emergent research in the meat industry, whether it’s innovations in meat traceability through the supply chain, the viability of laboratory-cultured meat, or efforts to curtail methane, a problematic greenhouse gas arising from cattle production and other sources. He taught his students to do the same, said Leann Saunders, who earned a master’s degree in beef industry leadership in 1994 and co-founded a company called Where Food Comes From, which provides third-party source verification for food products.

“In Dr. Smith’s classes, you really had to make sure you understood all sides of a given topic,” said Saunders, who was named 2018 Distinguished Alumna for the College of Agricultural Sciences. “He would always have the most knowledge about any issue you would bring up. He was always researching, studying, and educating himself, and that’s how he educated his students. He was never static, because issues are never static.”

Students grill buffalo burgers on Colorado State's campus. Photo by John Eisele

Michael Smith Building

JBS Global Food Innovation Center in Honor of Gary & Kay Smith

The new $20 million wing of the CSU Animal Sciences Building opened this spring with state-of-the-art facilities for teaching, research, and industry collaboration. To launch the center, JBS USA provided a $7.5 million lead gift, with an additional $5 million commitment for employee education. JBS USA, headquartered in Greeley, Colo., is a leading processor of beef and pork in the United States. It is also a majority shareholder of Pilgrim’s Pride Corp., the second-largest U.S. poultry company. JBS USA represents the North American arm of JBS S.A., the world’s leading processor of animal protein.

AREAS OF RESEARCH

Gary Smith, inducted in 2009 into the Meat Industry Hall of Fame, has studied a variety of issues related to red meat safety and quality. He worked at Colorado State from 1990 to 2010, becoming a University Distinguished Professor and holding the Monfort Chair in Meat Science. During that time, he and colleagues published 228 refereed scientific journal articles on topics including:

  • HACCP plans for beef, pork, and lamb carcasses
  • Multiple-hurdle micro-biological interventions
  • Undesirable chemical residues in beef and pork
  • National Beef Quality Audits
  • Development of Certified Hereford Beef
  • Dietary supplementation of vitamin E
  • Instrument grading of beef and lamb carcasses
  • Best practices for mitigation of bovine spongiform encephalopathy
  • Traceability systems for cattle, sheep, and swine