As the coronavirus began disrupting the nation’s meat supply chain, the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s (UW-Madison) swine program was among the affected operations. The program, which houses 1,500 pigs for nutritional studies that support the hog industry, sends the hogs to harvest at the Tyson Plant in Waterloo, Iowa, according to a company release. This spring, the plant was dealing with coronavirus-related closure and couldn’t take the UW-Madison hogs.
“These processing facilities were shutting down and the other ones couldn’t pick up the slack—because the limiting factor is cooler space (to hang carcasses),” explains Jamie Reichert, manager of the swine facility at the Arlington station, in the release. “Although the UW–Madison campus was largely shut down at the time, I made the case that we have animal processing capability and cooler space at the Meat Science and Muscle Biology Laboratory. So let’s process our pigs that have nowhere to go and help supply meat to our community. Let’s be part of the solution here.”
During a virtual meeting about the upcoming opening of campus’ new Meat Science and Animal Biologics Discovery Building, Jeff Sindelar, professor and extension meat specialist in the UW–Madison Department of Animal and Dairy Sciences, mentioned the university’s surplus hog situation. Al Gunderson, vice president of Vita Plus, a Madison-based animal feed and technology company, was also on the call and reached out about a partnership with the company’s Vita Plus Serving Customers and Rural Communities Project, the release says.
The project, which was launched in April with a $100,000 commitment from the company, purchases dairy, beef and pork products from producers and contributes it to local food pantries, school-based meal assistance programs and other local food security efforts. The majority of the funding had already been used to support Vita Plus customers and their local communities, but some remained, the release says.
The partnership between UW-Madison and Vita Plus was given a go-ahead and Gunderson worked with the university team to establish and manage the process. He also coordinated with Jerry Stoddard of Stoddard’s Meat Market in Cottage Grove to pick up the carcasses from campus for further processing at his operation. Vita Plus employees drive the finished, frozen pork products to area food banks, and the company’s Serving Customers and Rural Communities Project helps cover the costs of the meat and processing, the release says.
“It turned out to be a great way to bring all of this together,” says Gunderson, a graduate of the university’s meat and animal science program, in the release. “It’s wonderful to have this pork that was in jeopardy of not being utilized go to people who need it and help the community.”
So far, the UW-Madison team has completed two 15 hog harvests and the third and final harvest will take place on June 29. It will be the final harvest in the old facility before the new Meat Science and Animal Biologics Discovery Building opens.
Through the partnership, more than 8,700 pounds will have been donated to more than a dozen local food banks.