Grandin implores agriculture to tell its story

Jan 25, 2013

Temple Grandin thinks in pictures.

Give her a word like “steeple” and she says she’ll pull up pictures in her mind of the most famous churches in the world.

Give her “slaughter house” and she’ll see many of her own drawings of pen designs that have changed the U.S. slaughter industry in recent decades.

Her designs have dramatically improved animal welfare at processing plants, contrary to video images coming from some media outlets and animal activists.

The well-known Colorado State University animal science professor told DTN in an interview Tuesday that she believes the agriculture industry should also use pictures to share its successes.

Take for example the so-called “pink slime” controversy that erupted in 2012 as a result of a series of news reports about Beef Products Inc.’s finely textured beef.

Grandin said during a visit to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) that the controversy exposed communication weaknesses in the agriculture industry.

“The ag community needs to show the public what they do,” she said.

“Look at the pink slime— mistakes were made. They needed to open up that plant, make a video on that plant. There were thousands of negative stories.”

The story ag didn’t tell, Grandin said, was that the plants that produce finely textured beef had exemplary animal welfare records.

By the time the media began reporting on the use of finely textured beef, however, consumers became outraged that they did not know meat bought at grocery store counters contained the product—even if it had been proven safe.

“The mistake was that it wasn’t on the label and was a surprise to consumers,” Grandin said.

“We need to be explaining these things. Ag handled this badly. Nobody came to me to educate me about it. I think what we gotta do is open the door and show everything. A lot of folks in agriculture don’t.”

Agriculture could go a long way to solve its message problem by installing video cameras at ag operations to allow the world to see they have nothing to hide, she said.

Farmers who film parodies of popular songs showing what they do on the farm and then post the videos on such sites as YouTube, Grandin said, go a long way in showing what farmers do. Slaughter houses should install live internet cameras for the world to judge their work for themselves, she said.

“Plants are very good and need to show a lot more stuff,” Grandin said, “like the farmers who did the You- Tube video, ‘I’m a Farmer and I Grow It.’ What are chores to farmers are interesting to consumers.”

Lecture series

An overflow crowd listened to Grandin’s lecture “Improving Animal Welfare and Communication with the Public” as part of the Heuermann Lecturer series at UNL’s east campus.

Grandin’s life was the subject of an HBO movie, “Temple Grandin: Autism Gave Her a Vision. She Gave It a Voice.” She has become a rock star in U.S. agriculture and autism circles, touring the country feverishly since the movie’s release in 2010.

Since the movie came out, Grandin has put in some 2 million air miles traveling the country, she told DTN.

When it comes to agriculture, half of the meat plants in the U.S. and Canada handle their animals in equipment Grandin designed. She has written 10 books, including “Livestock Handling and Transport” and “Thinking in Pictures.”

Grandin told DTN that when she talked to Hollywood press about the HBO movie, reporters didn’t ask much about the movie. They wanted to know about the cattle business.

“The first question was, ‘What is a feedlot?’” she said.

“They wanted to talk about cattle—they wanted to know. I told them what a feedlot was and things as basic about where cattle are born.”

Farm handling

Much of Grandin’s work involves helping slaughter houses and feedlots take measures to keep animals calm. Not only is it “the right thing to do,” she said, but less-stressed animals produce better meat. How companies approach animal welfare can directly affect their bottom lines.

Though many animal rights groups have produced videos showing horror stories in slaughter houses and other operations, Grandin said the industry has turned things around.

“Slaughter houses have become a bright spot in the cattle industry,” she said.

“USDA is doing its job in shutting down plants that back in the ’70s would have been considered perfect.”

Grandin worked with Mc- Donald’s to implement animal welfare measures at meat production plants that source the restaurant’s meat. She did the same with Wendy’s, Burger King and Swift Foods. This has led to improved meat quality and helped these restaurants establish credibility among the public and animal rights activists, she said.

Grandin told the UNL audience that any animal welfare problems in slaughter houses start on the farm.

Maybe on-farm handlers need to walk among the animals more, avoid using prodders, get animals used to being around people. Animals that are used to calm environments on the farm arrive at slaughter houses far less stressed, she said.

“When I first started, maybe 20 percent to 30 percent did a decent job of handling,” Grandin said to the audience. “Today it’s more like 80 percent. When animals are fearful, they’re hard to handle. They stick together like glue.

“You go into meat plants today and it’s quiet like church.”

During all of her lectures on animal welfare, she talks about what to look for on the farm that may indicate eventual bad behavior at slaughter houses.

“Give me an animal that is not too weak, crazy and can walk,” Grandin said. “Problems at plants started on farms. Some handling stuff is really simple.”

The most important aspects of animal handling, she said, are to use non-slip flooring in slaughter houses, solid walls in pens to not distract animals, and good lighting in places where it is most needed.

Animals notice the smallest things.

“I thought everybody thought the way I do, in pictures,” Grandin said. “Animals notice details we don’t notice. They are very sensitive to reflections—go from dark to light spaces but not glaring light.”

Grandin said she has gotten down into chutes to see what cows are seeing, walked into dipping tanks to see what they’re feeling.

She has been asked many times if cattle are scared of getting slaughtered.

“If they knew they were getting slaughtered, they’d act up in plants,” Grandin said.

“I want people in the mindset of the animal instead of using force. We want to get animals to voluntarily cooperate with us.” — Todd Neeley, DTN