By: Janet Riley
It’s no secret that consumers are demanding increasing transparency from institutions and companies. The desire for transparency is growing, especially in relation to the food they buy and particularly the meat and poultry they eat.
Many people ask why the public can’t simply visit meat plants upon demand. Some worry that controlled access to plants must signal that we have something to hide. Likewise, animals rights activists have claimed that if our plants had glass walls, people would be vegetarians; we don’t think that’s the case at all.
The fact is, there are many good reasons why access has to be controlled. Food safety is critically important and visitors could unintentionally introduce contamination. That’s why those who work in plants must wear sanitary clothing and wash hands and boots when moving through plants. Given the machinery and knives that are used in our plants, operations must be extremely careful to protect visitors who could become injured and to protect their employees from the distractions that too much activity can cause.
But visitors can pose another issue that few people realize: they can cause animals to become agitated and frightened, which can lead to welfare problems.
Still, the meat industry wants to satisfy public curiosity about how we handle and process livestock. Sadly, most of the videos online detail problems that have occurred and sometimes present scenes from our plants that lack proper explanation, which can cause concerns. In the industry, we know, however, that anytime we do take visitors through plants and explain the process, the response is typically along these lines: “That wasn’t what I expected at all” or “The animals looked so much calmer that I thought they would.” “It was clean.” “It looked humane.”
Recently, we decided it was time to film the process and show the public the truth, but at the same time, we knew the images would need context and explanation. There is no one better to explain the process than animal handling expert Temple Grandin, Ph.D., professor of animal science at Colorado State University. Dr. Grandin’s life and work were the subject of an Emmy Award Winning film called Temple Grandin.
Dr. Grandin recently met us at a typical, large beef plant. She accompanied us on the tour and used her own words to describe the process on tape. She instructed us about the images to capture to help the public better understand the work we do every day.
In the video, Dr. Grandin talks about many aspects of handling and slaughter and she specifically explains that after animals are stunned to make them unconscious prior to slaughter, a step that is required by law, it is normal to see some uncoordinated movement, especially of the unrestrained rear leg. She notes that this does not mean that an animal is conscious, and much research will support this.
We were finishing the video when this week an activist group released an undercover video that was taped surreptitiously in a meat packing plant alleging inhumane treatment of cattle. Coincidentally, the undercover video claimed that stunned animals were conscious based upon reflexive moments – the very issue Dr. Grandin had just explained on tape. We moved quickly to finalize our video to help the public better understand and interpret the images in the undercover video.
Despite its timing, our new video featuring Dr. Grandin is not a direct response to the August 21 undercover video. Rather, it is an honest effort to convey the facts surrounding animal handling and slaughter. Our industry has a unique responsibility in first caring for live animals and then slaughtering and processing them for food, all under the watchful eye of federal inspectors. It’s hard work. It can be dirty work, but it’s important work. More than 95 percent of Americans eat meat and poultry. As meat packers, we have an ethical obligation to do the best job we can honor the sacrifice these animals make to feed people. And now we share with the public the truth about what we do and the approach that we take to ensure that the process is as humane as we can make it.
We thank Dr. Grandin for the 21 years of assistance she has given us in better understanding livestock and working with their natural instincts to keep them calm and minimize stress. She has been our teacher, our partner and sometimes our critic. But she’s always been honest. We also thank her for her willingness to be part of this major step forward in transparency.
Yes, this video is graphic, but it is honest. We hope it will be received in that spirit and that viewers will receive this as the important step forward that this video represents: glass walls. And there will be more to come in the future.