The honest approach that changed the meat science industry
March 4th, 2020
By Emily Lochner
It’s just after midnight in Washington, D.C., January 1993, and the phone is ringing. “Hello?” “Russell, we’ve got a problem in Seattle.” The phone call came from the President’s Chief of Staff. The recipient was Dr. Russell Cross, Administrator of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). The problem? Over 600 reported cases and four deaths caused by E. coli 0157:H7, the result of undercooked hamburgers served by Jack in the Box.
A thousand miles away, in Fort Collins, Colorado, a beef quality assurance plan is already two years in the making by a professor at Colorado State University (CSU), Dr. Gary Smith. In the spring of 1991, Dr. Chuck Lambert with the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA), was preparing for a presentation at the International Stockman’s Educational Foundation (ISEF) Congress. Lambert had approached an NCBA coworker, Dr. Darrell Wilkes, for advice on a topic for his presentation at the ISEF Congress. Dr. Wilkes replied with a comment that changed the beef industry as we know it. He asked, “What if you talked about how much money the beef industry is leaving on the table? What if we didn’t have shipping fever? What if we could improve profits through better management?” Wilkes’ idea not only became the topic of discussion in Lambert’s ISEF presentation, but quickly developed into a viable plan to revolutionize the beef industry. Wilkes and Lambert looped in Smith, a meat science specialist researching red meat safety, to help bring their idea to life.
Smith determined an audit was needed to determine a baseline standard within the industry before any recommendations for improvement could be made. He created a research proposal and submitted it to NCBA for funding, however it was vetoed due to a lack of official “request for proposal” (RFP). Yet, NCBA saw value in Smith’s plan, and shortly thereafter, an RFP was issued. Smith was awarded a grant, in tandem with Dr. Jeff Savell at Texas A&M University (TAMU), to begin compiling data for an industry audit. Smith hired professor Dr. Mark Miller – now the San Antonio Livestock Exposition Endowed Chair in Meat Science, Texas Tech University – to begin collecting data at packing plants across the nation. Before the 1991 year ended, the checkoff-funded National Beef Quality Audit (NBQA) was born.
The NBQA was making progress. The 1991 audit reported findings such as too much fat thickness
($111/head was lost in excess fat trimmings), horn issues (31% of cattle had horns), and hide issues due to lice, ticks, and side brands, but the NBQA was determining issues that would affect producer profitability, not beef safety. In 1993, post Jack in the Box crisis, Cross, in addition to managing FSIS (and it’s 600-million-dollar budget and 10,000 employees), began forming a plan with President of the National Meat Association, Rosemary Mucklow. After surveying over 7,000 meat processing plants in America, they discovered that less than 300 were actively implementing Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points (HACCP) protocols in raw products. Cross began actively pursuing a solution and, together with Mucklow, founded the International HACCP Alliance, serving as CEO from 1994–1997. The alliance prepared the industry to rapidly accept HACCP protocols, and today includes over 40 industry associations, 50 universities, and regulatory government agencies from 12 countries.
For most people, founding an internationally renowned organization (or two) or creating the guideline for a national audit that changed meat industry standards would be a career highlight, but for Cross and Smith, it was just the tip of the iceberg. Together, they boast accolades from distinguished teaching awards to hall of fame inductions and industry service awards. They have also authored or co-authored 1,500+ scientific journal articles.
What was the path to acclaim? For Smith, it began humbly in southwest Oklahoma. Smith’s father was a farmer raising cattle, chickens, and hogs as well as growing cotton, peanuts, and mung beans as a cover crop on 160 acres. Their family home didn’t have electricity or running water, but it did help raise Smith’s first livestock project in 1953, Snowball, a whopping 630-pound live weight show steer project. In 1956, Smith graduated high school and attended College of the Sequoias, with a tuition of $8 per semester. He later transferred to Fresno State, where he was hired on to work at the college beef center making $0.35/hour. Smith finished his bachelor’s degree and began teaching high school vocational ag, however he quickly returned to school to obtain a master’s degree from Washington State University (WSU), after prompting from a college advisor. Not long into his master’s program at WSU, the agriculture head of department called Smith into his office, asking, “Have you ever taken a meats course?” Smith, uninterested in meat science at the time, hesitantly answered, “Yes, one.”
“Great,” the head of department responded, “You’ll be teaching meats, meat science, meat evaluation, and animal science this year. Take ten days to get prepared.” Smith laughs when recalling his early days teaching meat science. In class, he talked as fast as he could for 52 minutes so none of his students had time to ask him questions, that he probably wouldn’t know the answer to. Fortunately for the industry, Smith started taking an interest in the meat science he was teaching. He later transferred to Texas A&M University, in 1968, where he obtained a Ph.D. in Meat Science and Muscle Biology. Smith remained as a professor at TAMU for the next 21 years before transferring in 1990 to join the staff at Colorado State University (CSU), where he remained until 2014. Today, if you tour the CSU campus, you’ll find a brand-new meats building in the center of campus, the Gary and Kay Smith Meat Science Lab.
Cross’ story began in Bushnell, Florida. His father was a plumber and electrician in addition to owning the local hardware store, grocery store, and movie theater. Cross worked throughout high school at Central Packing, a slaughterhouse in town, and developed a passion for meat science early on. He obtained his undergraduate and master’s degrees at the University of Florida. After his undergraduate degree, he moved to Kansas City to work with the USDA as a meat grader. In 1969, Cross attended the American Meat Science Association (AMSA) Congress and was invited by Zerle Carpenter to join the TAMU doctoral program in meat science. He agreed and enrolled shortly thereafter. Cross mentioned, “I didn’t love it and was near leaving the program when a new professor stepped in and changed my mind.” The professor that made all the difference? Dr. Gary Smith. Cross obtained his Ph.D. in Animal Science (Meats) from TAMU in 1972 and rapidly began climbing the ladder of success. Throughout his career, he’s served as a Research Leader at the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center, Clay Center, Nebraska; Administrator of USDA FSIS, Washington, D.C.; CEO of Future Beef Operations; Vice President at DuPont Food Industry Solutions; Executive Vice President, Food Safety at National Beef Packing; Chief of Staff to the President of TAMU; Executive Vice President, of TAMU; and most recently, Head of the Animal Science Department at TAMU. Today, he’s simply a professor, the equivalent of his first teaching job at Texas A&M. He says, “The best job is always the one you start with.”
Cross and Smith have taught college students for 50 years each. Is retirement near? Luckily, they both say no. “We’re still enjoying it, the students and teaching aspect continues to remain fun,” boasts Smith, a young 81 years old. Together, Cross and Smith teach an undergraduate/graduate level class at TAMU titled “Current Issues in Animal Agriculture.” They both agree that one of the biggest issues is that the beef industry is always on the defensive, meaning activists and the uninformed public are continuing to make claims against agriculture and farmers, ranchers, academia, and industry are responding defensively. It’s hard to disseminate quality information about agriculture when you’re too busy putting out fires. “We need leadership,” says Smith. “We need someone to stand up and take the lead, creating and distributing industry content on the offense.”
Another problem they’re afraid must be confronted within the decade is the trend of big carcasses. A recent article published by Cross states:
“In 2016, the Texas Beef Council commissioned a study at Texas A&M University to analyze the potential impact of the increase in size and weight of cattle, carcasses, subprimal cuts, and retail cuts/portions on supermarket operators, purveyors, and distributors in Texas. During this study, researchers interviewed representatives of six supermarket chains and seven purveyors/distributors. We conducted audits of 54 supermarkets, and we conferred with individuals from several industry trade organizations and universities. What I personally observed and learned during this study disturbed me greatly. From 2005 to 2014, Americans decreased their beef consumption by 19 percent, causing beef’s market share to drop from 45 percent in 1970 to only 25 percent in 2016. Average slaughter weight in beef carcasses has increased by 330 pounds in the last 40 years, making the average hot carcass weight today around 900 pounds. Retailers are being forced to reduce steak thickness to meet target demand purchase price, yet consumers still prefer thicker steaks.”
Smith comments, “Retailers today are not properly training employees to cut meat.” In addition, we have packages in the grocery store labeled “round steak”. An average consumer believing any “steak” can be cooked on a grill will be sorely disappointed with their tough, fat-lacking, overcooked round steak after nine minutes on the grill. Education on properly cooking meats is lacking, and consumers are being turned-off when their expensive beef purchases are not palatable due to inappropriate cooking methods. Sometimes bigger isn’t always better. Cross and Smith believe it’s time for the U.S. beef industry to focus on consumers and take meat quality, consistency, and preparation methods more seriously.
It is said that innovation distinguishes leaders from followers. Maybe so. But when it comes right down to it, a leader is also defined by hard work, long hours, passion, and an honest review of one’s self and industry. There is no better example of industry leaders than Drs. Russell Cross and Gary Smith. They’ve blazed their own their paths, which have intertwined throughout the years. What has unified them? Their ability to continuously question the status quo, believing, “The way things have always been done” is not an acceptable solution if America intends to continue feeding the world’s, over 7.5 billion inhabitants and growing. The industry needs leaders who face crises’ like Jack in the Box or lack of audits, who have the vision and the drive to facilitate change, fearlessly. The industry needs more Crosses and Smiths.