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Meet the Meat Doctor PDF Print E-mail
Written by MITCH MAERSCH   
Wednesday, 08 November 2017 16:08

With a Ph.D. in animal sciences, Jonathan Pleitner of Port Washington knows exactly how sausage is made—he writes the recipes

Jonathan Pleitner of Port Washington literally knows how the sausage is made.
He’s the one making it, and at one of the most iconic companies in the country.
But he has nothing to do with those Johnsonville brats, Italian sausages and other favorites people enjoy.
The meat doctor — Pleitner has a Ph.D. in animal sciences from the University of Wisconsin-Madison — is a product developer for Johnsonville’s international market.
The Sheboygan Falls-based company sells to several countries in Asia and Mexico and Canada.
People in places like Japan and Malaysia, however, aren’t chomping into brats right off of the grill on a roll like Americans do.
“Buns are definitely an American thing,” Pleitner said.
There’s actually no word for “brat” in other countries.
“It doesn’t translate well,” Pleitner said.
But sausage does, albeit with flavors altered from Americans’ preferences.
Japanese buy smaller Johnsonville sausages to mix with fresh produce in hot pots or as stir fry. People prefer lower sodium content and less flavor, so they can season the meat themselves.
“Here, the meat is the star of the meal. That’s not the case there,” Pleitner said.
Pleitner’s job works like this: The marketing department comes to him with an idea, and he develops the recipe for the sausage.
Then, he gets his hands dirty, actually doing the blending, mixing, stuffing and smoking himself to get just the right flavor profiles.
One of Johnsonville’s small plants makes a test batch, and Pleitner helps taste test. Like a wine connoisseur, he often spits out the sausage once he gets a taste. Water, saltines and pretzels help clean his palate.
Sausage also gets sent to other countries for taste testing, and Pleitner tweaks the recipe according to feedback. Then, it is ready to launch.
Not every sausage gets the green light for mass production, but Pleitner is OK with that.
“You’re certainly always learning something, which is the best part,” he said.
The variety of different countries’ flavor preferences allows Pleitner to “branch outside the typical sausage spectrum,” he said.
Culture plays a role in how Johnsonville’s products are used. In Mexico, he said, lunchtime often lasts for two hours, allowing people to cook sausage with their own flavorings.
Johnsonville began selling internationally about eight years ago. As the middle class expands in other countries, so does the demand for pork and sausage, Pleitner said.
Canada, he said, likes fresh brats and smoked sausage, while Japan only gets smoked sausage.
Packaging itself can make a big difference in sales. Johnsonville’s ground sausage used to be sold in a tub, while now it’s in a tray, Pleitner said.
And brats aren’t the only food that doesn’t exist in other countries — they’re even unique in many states. Even summer sausage is a mystery in many places outside Wisconsin and Minnesota.
“It speaks to the regionality,” Pleitner said.
Pleitner has been at Johnsonville for nearly five years, starting right after he earned his doctorate of philosophy. He is one of 15 product developers and one of six with a Ph.D.
“I’ve learned a lot at Johnsonville. It’s humbling,” he said.
His dissertation was on the effects of an altered protein that leads to heart disease in rats. A mutation in the protein, he found, causes the heart’s left ventricle to enlarge and work harder to pump blood, which leads to heart failure.
Pleitner earned a doctoral fellowship to UW-Madison in 2007 after receiving his undergraduate degree in agriculture and animal science from Purdue University.
Pleitner grew up in Valparaiso, Ind., and learned to love animals from helping take care of his family’s dogs.
He planned on attending veterinary school, but he got a job in the meat lab and did undergraduate research looking at skeletal muscle types. His labs at Purdue and Madison were next to the meat lab, and he often found himself spending time in both places.
When he was getting ready to defend his thesis, he was told that Johnsonville has a great relationship with the UW-Madison meat lab, and a product development position was open. He applied and was hired.
It wasn’t a career Pleitner imagined.
“You have no idea these occupations exist,” he said.
Pleitner moved from Madison to Port Washington, got married and now has an 11-month-old daughter. In April, he was elected to the Port Washington Common Council.
Pleitner has run several marathons, including a couple of ultramarathons — running for 50 miles.
Hence after tasting sausage every day, when he gets home “it’s a salad or fruits and vegetables,” he said.
It’s a small miracle he doesn’t have every neighborhood dog chasing him when he gets home.
“I smell like a sausage most days,” he said.
But Pleitner said he enjoys his work, his new family and living in Port.
“It’s an awesome life I have,” he said. “I love it.”

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