Oscar Mayer gone but not forgotten

Robert G. Kauffman
UW Madison
M.P. King, Wisconsin State Journal/AP
The wienermobile is displayed outside of Oscar Meyer headquarters in Madison, Wis.
In this photo taken Monday, Oct. 27, 2014, the wienermobile is displayed outside of the the Oscar Meyer headquarters in Madison, Wis. The Oscar Mayer plant in Madison that has been around for nearly a century and currently employs about 1,000 people will close as part of business moves by the parent company, Kraft Heinz Food Co. announced Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2015. (M.P. King/Wisconsin State Journal via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT

MADISON - The Oscar Mayer Company in Madison will soon be history with the decision made by Kraft-Heinz Foods. Financially this may have been wise! However, because of my 60-year relationship with the company, I’m disappointed.

Historically, Oscar Mayer Company has been very progressive and very competitive in the meat industry. It has had extensive meat research programs, sound management and continuing profitability. That’s why General Foods , Phillip Morris, and Kraft Foods purchased Oscar Mayer. It was good business.

The company made wise decisions over the years. It realized the fresh meat (steaks and roasts) market was difficult....you either had to “sell it or smell it!” So, it specialized in meat processing where safety, storage life, nutritive value as well as consumers’ demands for ready-to-eat, safe, desirably tasty, totally edible and convenient products were important.

How to obtain lean meat as the basic ingredient for their products was a different challenge. Eventually Oscar Mayer discontinued supplying their own lean meat. Instead of harvesting livestock, it relied on other meat companies.

Plant employees talk on phones and with each other after a meeting was called at Kraft Foods-Oscar Mayer headquarters and plant in Madison Nov. 4, 2015. The plant in Madison that has been around for nearly a century and currently employs about 1,000 people will close as part of business moves by the parent company, Kraft Heinz Food Co.

Since fat, an essential component of processed meat for flavor and texture was needed, the company also had to buy fat. Lean meat and spices were expensive but fat trim was not. Merging lean meat with inexpensive fat trim into sausage was economically advantageous.

Grinding during processing improved quality such as tenderness and uniformity. Its advanced packaging techniques provided long shelf-life for sausage. And the traditional use of salt, nitrite and spices for processed meats helped preserve, improve quality and insure safety for its many types of sausage, ham and bacon.

The company has also been a very responsible member of the community. In addition to charitable support, it has always been a friend to the University. It permitted the conduct of research and teaching within its walls.

That’s not all! The UW was the only institution in the U.S. to have frequent access to a ‘giant meat laboratory’ in its backyard. Students saw the application of meat science and technology at the plant. Company personnel (some became UW adjunct professors) provided lectures for UW classes and the company provided internship and employment opportunities for UW students.

Six Oscar Mayer Wienermobile vehicles "linked up" and the hot dog hot rods paraded through downtown Louisville, KY in 1999 to celebrate the 18 million meals contributed to America's Second Harvest food bank network hrough the "Share the Smiles" national grassroots tour.

National college and state high school meat judging contests as well as numerous tours were conducted there.

The UW was permitted to photograph and film products and processes for publications. What’s more, many departments of the Colleges of Agricultural & Life Sciences and Engineering as well as the Medical School and Enzyme Institute regularly collected fresh tissue samples when animals were harvested. An example was the Mechanical Engineering Department’s use of pig heart valves to pioneer ‘bird cage’ heart valves for humans.

Furthermore, many of the Company’s discoveries and inventions initially went unheralded but over the years found their way into the processed meat industry internationally.

The Oscar Mayer family was extremely cooperative, too. In becoming acquainted with the late Oscar Mayer III, I experienced his congenial, humble and benevolent approach as president to support the University and the City of Madison as it continued to be Dane County’s largest employer.

Mr. Mayer was a true gentleman and both he and his father were among the first to be inducted into the Wisconsin Meat Industry Hall of Farm.

The University of Wisconsin, the City of Madison, citizens of Dane County and all of Wisconsin, and I will miss but never forget the Oscar Mayer Company for the many ways it contributed to our area, citizens, students and programs. Thanks go to all those associated with the company for such meaningful contributions over many years!

Robert G. Kauffman is emeritus professor of the Meat Science & Muscle Biology Laboratory in the Department of Animal Sciences, UW-Madison