Intercollegiate meat judging has been a serious business since it started 82 years ago. About 40 colleges will compete in six sanctioned competitions this year, culminating in the international championship in Dakota City, Neb., in November. At contests, students spend most of a day staring at whole and dismembered carcasses. They score meat quality, leanness and butchering technique in detail; then, meat experts grade their work.
There's more at stake than the trophies that go to winners in "lamb judging" and "total beef." As in football, the best competitors earn All-American honors and the notice of pro scouts -- in this case, meat-industry professionals. Intercollegiate judging is the prime training ground for U.S. meat companies, which produced $71 billion worth of beef alone in 2006, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The Agriculture Department hires graduates to grade meat in jobs with starting salaries of less than $30,000 but that are rich in benefits, including college-tuition refunds. Industry jobs pay better, starting at $35,000 to $40,000 a year and putting students on a track to make six-figure salaries. "Ultimately, we would like them to be a plant manager or in operations at a corporate level," said Ruben Flores, the community-relations manager for Swift & Co., which sponsors meat-judging contests.