Category Archives: Slaughterhouses

Slaughterhouses and a visit from Temple Grandin

Header photo:  Frost on maple leaves.  Photo by Bethany M. Dunbar

Another reason to eat local food

by Bethany M. Dunbar, Nov. 6, 2009

We meat eaters, even in Vermont, have to face some facts and clean up some messes.  The news of the shut-down of the slaughterhouse in Grand Isle for animal abuse allegations brought this story home.

In truth it was already home — right in the neighborhood.  When my kids were little and my ex husband and I were dairy farming, I was always so pleased to be able to make an entire meal of food from our own farm.  We were not raising beef cattle at that time, but a dairy animal that needed to be culled would provide wonderful beef for our family.  Those cows were not treated badly, they had a great life.  We loved them.  I still have photos of some of those ladies — Eve was our first Jersey cow.  Her daughters’ names all started with E so we could remember which family they came from.

So we had our own beef and our own milk.  The milk was unpasteurized, about 5 percent butterfat.  In those days we were working physically all the time and didn’t have to worry about extra fat in the milk.  We had fiddleheads picked from the side of the road and potatoes grown by my father or my father-in-law.

We used Cabot butter because that’s where our milk was being shipped.

What I’m saying is that I was a localvore before anyone ever heard of that word.  I learned how to be one when our family moved to Vermont in 1968 and my parents read Stalking the Wild Asparagus and started growing their own food.

I learned a lot more, including how incredibly delicious venison can be, from the Dunbar family.

We are so lucky in Vermont to be able to know so much about where our food comes from and how it’s grown and made.

The rest of the country is starting to think about all this, and that’s fantastic.  I just read an article in the New Yorker about the horrors of slaughterhouses and how chickens are treated in them.  Disgusting, plain and simple.  I will never be a vegetarian and certainly hope those people don’t take over the world.  Some of them make absolutely no sense to me.  But I do appreciate their horror over how these factories treat the animals that become our food.

It doesn’t have to be that way.  A woman named Temple Grandin recently spoke at Sterling College about ways to design humane slaughterhouses and systems to ensure the animals are treated well right up until a humane death.

Posted here is the article I did about her speech.  I found it fascinating and hope you will too.

Where do you get your food?  Do you think about who is growing it and how it’s made?  It’s a little harder in the late fall and winter but there’s a lot we can do.  Let me know your ideas for eating locally and in a way that is not cruel to the animals.

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Dairy cows in a September pasture. Photo by Bethany M. Dunbar

Animal science expert describes humane slaughterhouses

by Bethany M. Dunbar, the Chronicle, October 14, 2009

CRAFTSBURY COMMON — “My mind works like Google for images,” said Temple Grandin, an expert on animal psychology who has helped improve conditions in slaughterhouses all over the United States and the world.

Sterling College hosted Ms. Grandin on Thursday, October 8.  The dining hall was packed for the occasion.  The event was sponsored by the Vermont Highland Cattle Company and the University of Vermont Center for Sustainable Agriculture.

Ms. Grandin has autism.  She has written nine books and has a doctoral degree in animal science.  She is a professor of animal science at Colorado State University.

In extreme cases, autism can render a person almost completely unable to communicate.  Autism tends to make the mind focus intensely on specifics, Ms. Grandin said, usually visual images instead of words or phrases.  For example, if she mentions the words church steeple, most people would conjure up an image of a generic steeple.  But someone with autism would think of an example of a specific steeple, or many of them, that the person had seen in the past.

When she was little, people wanted to put her into an institution.  Luckily, her family helped her get through the hard times.

“When I was a young kid in high school, I thought everybody thought in pictures,” she said.  She struggled with algebra but found geometry and trigonometry to be no problem.

At some point she started realizing that animals must be thinking in a similar way.  Scientific studies have shown that even ants have multiple stored visual images in their minds.

“There’s no other way animals can think,” she said.

Animals remember specific visual details of a situation that people might overlook.  So a chain hanging down and rattling, a piece of paper fluttering and making a noise or motion, a sunbeam on the floor, or dark stripes on the floor created by shadows, could make all the difference in being able to move animals around — especially animals that are not handled frequently and are basically not that tame.

A calm animal is much easier to handle than a frightened one, she said.  Animal emotions have been scientifically shown.  Emotions that drive animals include fear, separation anxiety, rage, and curiosity.

One device for training animals to get used to something new is put that item into their pasture where they can take a look on their own terms and at their own speed.  Animals are attracted to something new and might get used to it that way.

A slippery floor that causes an animal to fall can create a problem with a whole group of animals that all become afraid.  The same is true of a light shining directly in their eyes so they can’t see the flooring or what lies ahead.

Among the design changes Ms. Grandin has instituted in slaughterhouses all over the world are solid walls in curving patterns.  That way the animal thinks it will be able to go back where it came from, and it can’t see anything frightening to make it afraid to go ahead.

Simple changes to slaughtering facilities can make the process extremely more humane, which enhances the quality of the meat.

“Good handling right before slaughter improves quality,” Ms. Grandin said.  Other incentives for slaughterhouses include savings on workers’ compensation because workers are less likely to get hurt if the animals are not scared and freaking out.

In most cases, she said, when managers of meat plants could see the results of making small changes they were all for it.  There were a few cases of managers that liked hurting animals or could not agree with change and had to be fired.

In 1999 she was hired to make changes for McDonald’s.

She was able to make simple design changes in 75 big plants.

“There were three plants where the managers had to be fired because they just had the wrong attitude.”

In Mr. Grandin’s experience, small plants are either really good or really bad.  She told one person who runs an organic chicken plant, “You’ve got to make sure that Tyson’s not doing a better job than you are.”

Usually problems come in when the plants are too full, understaffed, or equipment is broken down.

In some cases, reform started by taking the chief executive officers on a field trip to see how badly the animals were treated in the slaughterhouses.

“I call that opening up the executives’ eyes,” she said.

Ms. Grandin said activists can be helpful to encourage reform up to a point.  She said before there were protests about conditions in the meat plants, she was making no progress.

“Prior to that it was like pounding on cold steel,” she said.  Once people started protesting, she was much more able to bend the steel.

But many activists take things way too far.  Ms. Grandin said there are two kinds of activism:  “Activism for reform versus activism for let’s just get rid of the meat industry.”

People need to understand how it works out in the field, she said.  If not it’s just “Radicals fighting radicals.  What happened to the big old mucky middle?”

Ms. Grandin said the banning of horse slaughtering has created horrible conditions for certain living horses.  Some are sent to Mexico where they are basically tortured, she said, and others are starving.

“That horse slaughter thing is a real mess,” she said.  “You could have terrible slaughterhouses and that would be better than this.”

Ms. Grandin helped reform slaughterhouses all over the place but found that when she went back, in some cases the reform did not stick and bad practices had returned.  So her next step was to develop a system of auditing slaughterhouses that anyone can use to see if practices are humane or not.

Guidelines must be specific, she said, so you don’t want one that says, “Animals must be handled properly.”

Instead the guideline should say that no more than 1 percent of animals should slip or fall down, not more than 3 percent should vocalize when being handled, and cattle prods should only have to be used in no more than a certain percentage of times.

Cows should not be lame or skinny.  Of course a few will be, but a high number of lame or skinny cows shows mistreatment.  Coat condition and dirty animals are also an indication of mistreatment.

For more information, Ms. Grandin’s web site is www.grandin.com.