Dr. Kirk Braden: The Science of Meat
March 25, 2013
A member of the ASU Agriculture Department faculty since 2006, Braden oversees the department’s Meat and Food Science program. A big part of that includes directing the USDA-inspected Food Safety and Product Development (FSPD) Lab along with his partners in meat, fellow faculty member Dr. Loree Branham, lab manager Robert Cope and research associate Michael Boenig.
Located at the ASU Management, Instruction and Research (MIR) Center, the FSPD Lab was still in its infancy when Braden arrived at ASU. Initially the lab director, he has now moved into the role of advisor and financial manager, and also teaches all of his classes at the MIR Center. When he is not in class, he can often be found in the lab with his students, elbow deep in either meat processing or product development research.
“We’ve been under a constant state of growth,” Braden said. “We are still the newest meat lab in the country, and everything that goes on out there is all about teaching. Almost all the labor in the FSPD is done by students, and we’re also teaching them life skills. We teach the fundamentals of harvesting animals and processing meat every day, but we’re also teaching students things like how to show up on time, how to make right decisions and how to manage their time.”
“I also don’t do any research on my own,” he added. “I’m very serious about that. Our entire team at the FSPD does research together with students. Students are in on everything, and we couldn’t get it done without them.”
The student-processed meat products from the FSPD Lab are sold to the public through the ASU Meat Market locations at the MIR Center and LeGrand Alumni and Visitors Center. The revenue generated by Meat Market sales and custom processing for private customers goes back into the program to pay the student workers and fund future research.
“Our entire team at the FSPD does research together with students. Students are in on everything, and we couldn’t get it done without them.”
Another title on Braden’s crowded business card is co-coach and advisor of ASU’s Meat Judging Team. Himself a member of Texas Tech’s 1999 National Champion Meat Judging Team, Braden helped lead the ASU team to a top 5 national ranking in 2012.
“I attend practices as often as possible,” Braden said. “I also help recruit and generally watch over the program. We’re growing the entire judging program, not just meat judging. We’re all pretty competitive in the Agriculture Department, and we’re trying to advance the program to where we’re winning contests, not just placing well against the larger schools. We are a small Division II school, but we don’t use that as a crutch because it’s a disservice to our students.”
Braden’s animal science endeavors also extend beyond the ASU campus. During the summer of 2012, he completed a CNFA Farmer-To-Farmer Program trip to Ukraine, where he helped train workers at one of that nation’s largest sheep farms. His training sessions included slaughter and slaughter floor operation, meat quality assurance, carcass characteristics and chilling, freezing and boning. He also educated farm management on the requirements for building a new slaughter house.
“The ability and opportunity to evaluate international agriculture, livestock production and meat/food processing will assist our ASU programs in developing our Meat and Food Science students into well-rounded pre-professionals,” Braden said. “It will also help them become increasingly competitive in a globally dynamic livestock and food market.”
His goal now is to get students involved in international agriculture to help them see the industry, people and the world from different perspectives.
“I really think we are going to need that,” Braden said. “Since we are a smaller school, our students are going to need those types of experiences if they are going to remain competitive. Dr. Branham and I are working on starting an international program in agriculture to get our students some experience.”
Along with Branham, Braden is also co-advisor of the Meat and Food Science Association student organization. In his limited spare time, he enjoys spending time with his wife, Crystal, ASU’s director of institutional planning, policy and effectiveness, and their children, Koen (4) and Carsen (3). But, admittedly, he spends a tremendous amount of time at the “office.”
“I get to choose, in some manner, what I think is important from a teaching, research and outreach standpoint, and I really enjoy what I do,” Braden said. “So, I would still be at ASU if I won the lottery. In fact, I would probably give money to the university just to see the programs flourish, and still come to work.”