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Leather facts

Essay two: The importance of animal welfare to the leather industry

Animal welfare has always mattered to tanners because animals that are well cared for usually have better hides and skins, making it easier to produce high-quality leather from them than from hides that show the signs of poor care. In today’s market, there is an even more pressing reason to pay close attention to animal welfare. Consumers care about this issue more than ever and rightly demand that the products of animal origin that they buy meet high standards.

Animal welfare strategies have long been at the forefront of how big meat corporations run their businesses, with consideration for how the general public would view the way they treat the animals at the core of these policies. Now, animal welfare commitments are also part of the sustainability strategy of lots of non-meat companies, including large numbers of consumer-facing leathergoods brands, big and small. And just as tanners look upstream to hide suppliers or meat companies or farmers for the reassurances they need, consumer products manufacturers are turning to tanners for these same guarantees.

For meat companies, whose connection to animals is more immediate and more obvious, there are audit systems in place. These have the support of big consumer brands such as fast-food restaurants. Abattoirs know they will fail and lose business unless they can maintain high standards. In highlighting these practices and explaining how she helped put them in place, Dr Temple Grandin, professor of animal sciences at Colorado State University, draws the conclusion that as long as we continue to give animals a decent life and carry out slaughter under the correct conditions, we are entitled to continue to raise them and bring to market meat, milk and by-products, including hides.

The twenty-first century meat industry, and by extension the global leather sector, which is completely dependent on meat for the raw material it uses, owes much to Dr Temple Grandin. The Colorado State University academic has made it her life’s work to study the practices involved in taking cattle and other livestock through feedlots and abattoirs and making the systems that farmers and companies operate in these facilities better.

Change over the decades

Dr  Grandin says she saw more improvement in one year, 1999, than in the 25 or so years’ work leading up to that. Two years after that, in a paper presented at the US National Institute of Animal Agriculture in Colorado, she explained that one of the biggest drivers for change were fast food brands, especially McDonald’s. “In 1999 McDonald’s Corporation started auditing handling and stunning practices in the plants that supply them with beef,” she stated in the paper. “They used a scoring system that I developed for the American Meat Institute1 and I trained the food safety auditors. The results of the McDonald’s audits clearly showed huge improvements2.”

Two years on, the improvements were ongoing: 90% of the plants supplying McDonald’s were, by 2001, able to stun 95% or more of the cattle with a single shot, which is the key to painless slaughter, the experts say. Abusive behaviour on the part of employees towards the cattle had mostly stopped; for example, many plants had stopped using electric prods and had begun using much gentler tools, such as flags or paddles, for driving animals through cattle-runs. Another simple idea that has begun to take hold is to use a type of awning over holding pens to give shade to the cows. All of this is also to admit that practices in industrialised abattoirs in the twentieth century often fell far short of the standards Dr Grandin believes people owe to the animals in our care; in a survey she carried out for the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) in 1996, she witnessed “severe abuse of cattle” in three beef plants. She is adamant that “conditions improved greatly when McDonald’s started its plant-auditing programme”.

A scoring system for abattoirs

The audit system Dr Grandin developed, based on observing samples of 100 animals at a time, counts the percentage of animals stunned correctly at the first attempt, the percentage of animals that remain unconscious until slaughter (which has to be 100% for the facility to pass), the percentage that “vocalise”, moo or bellow, during their passage through the abattoir (“a measure of distress”, the professor says), the percentage prodded with an electric prod and the percentage of animals that slip or fall over. ‘Yes’ or ‘no’ answers for each animal combine to give a score for the abattoir, but Dr Grandin is insistent that another component of a good audit system is to have a more subjective valuation, for which she has stipulated that auditors must walk through the facility noting any indications they see of poor maintenance, overcrowding, slippery floors, etc.

Famous for applying her experience as someone with autism to her understanding of how conditions in plants affect cattle, she calls herself “a practical person” and says she has done little more than incorporate into the audit system things that the general public would regard as acceptable. She has put this to the test by taking “many non-meat industry people” to well run slaughter plants and, in her experience, visitors found what went on there “acceptable”. More recently, she has become an advocate of video-monitoring of abattoirs to make the audit process easier. The audit system she designed is still in place and used by big consumer-facing companies.

As well as common sense, she talks about the importance of being a good observer of how animals react to different situations. This insight, too, she links to her condition. “I am a visual thinker,” she explains. “Everything I think is in pictures, not words. Animals live in a sensory-based world. They react to what they see. Things we might not normally notice can scare them and it’s when they feel fear that they can become agitated.”

A survey with mixed results

Before the slaughterhouse, she is also interested in the treatment animals receive at feedlots and quotes a survey of 39 feedyards in Texas in 2019. Between 60% and 70% of the people working in those facilities scored well in the survey for their stock-handling skills. Dr Grandin is pleased these people were “doing things right” and says it is a huge improvement on the way things would have been 20 years ago or even 10 years ago. She attributes the improvement to low-stress workshops that livestock and meat industry organisations have been carrying out in the US in recent years.
However, she points out that still having 30% or more of the people working in feedyards handling the cattle badly is far less pleasing. She does not like people yelling at the animals and is surprised that there are still feedyard workers who will stand at a cow’s head and poking the animal in the butt. This is less about causing any pain (these prods are usually gentle), but it shows her that workers have been poorly trained. “This action is telling the animal to move forward and go back at the same time,” she explains.

She insists that there are simple techniques everyone in the business can and should learn, which would allow them to get rid of “electric prods and other bad things”. If the person walks quickly past the shoulder of the animal in the opposite direction, the cattle will move forward and they will follow each other, she insists. “It sounds counter-intuitive, but it works,” she says, “without any need for yelling.”

On the whole, Dr Grandin believes cattle have become calmer in the last 20 years, but recent changes she has observed convince her that the need for good stockmanship skills will continue. In general, beef cattle are growing bigger and heavier and are going to slaughter at a younger age3. She says the industry ought to be careful about how far it goes in pushing for extra productivity, suggesting that leg ailments, for example, are becoming more common now. “We have to have animals we can handle,” she says.

The leather industry’s efforts

Work on animal welfare has also been going on in the leather industry for years. As long ago as 2011, its representative body in the European Union, COTANCE, launched a plan for better hide traceability and said social and environmental mismanagement in the area of raw materials was adversely affecting the tanning sector’s image4. It wanted tanners to drive better governance. By 2014, demand for tanners to exert some control, to try to take some responsibility for what happens to the animals from which their raw materials derive, was clearly coming from the customer base. That year, luxury group Kering began updating sourcing guidelines to say it wanted animal welfare to be part of better management of its leather supply chain5.
Andreas Kindermann, the chief executive of Wollsdorf Leder in Austria, who was elected president of COTANCE in 2018, referred to the subject: “Our customers want to know where the leather comes from and we want to know where the hides come from. All stakeholders need to work together on this.”6 In further comments at the start of 2021, however, Mr Kindermann said leather manufacturers in Europe were still encountering resistance from the livestock sector when it comes to transparency and traceability in raw materials management7.

An example of what the different players in the supply chain can achieve when they work in partnership came to light at the end of 2017. A project called SELAMBQ was launched to try to halt the deterioration in quality of entrefino lambskins, a type of leather much coveted by luxury leathergoods manufacturers, with Madrid-based company Loewe at the forefront of its admirers. European tanners supported and financed SELAMBQ8. Those involved included Russo di Casandrino from Italy, Riba Guixà, Colomer-Ledexport, Inpelsa and Bosch Girona from Spain, and Bodin-Joyeux, Mégisserie Richard and Mégisserie Alric from France. The Spanish associations of lamb farmers and meat producers, Interovic and Anafric, also took part. During the first year, activity focused on mapping more than 300,000 Spanish entrefino skins, with analysis of their defects carried out by a team of researchers at the University of Zaragoza. Their analysis highlighted a series of defects that the researchers attributed to breeding and slaughtering practices. Based on this, the tanners called for an improvement in technical solutions and good practice, including at the animal welfare level. 

Programmes from large groups

Two years later came the first in a series of announcements from large tanning groups addressing this question. Brazil-based JBS Couros launched Kind Leather, with its chief executive, Roberto Motta, saying it would “revolutionise the industry”9. Kind Leather is a range of leather, part of JBS Couros’s wider product offering. It involves production and environmental efficiencies at the group’s tanneries and at partners’ cutting plants in the making of this range, but it also involves using traceable hides. Monitoring technology is in place to oversee and verify the activities of more than 80,000 cattle suppliers in Brazil, ensuring they comply with the social and environmental standards. The system monitors a wide range of issues, including having a team of specialists monitor animal welfare practices.

JBS Couros says it works with cattle farmers to make sure the animals are cared for throughout their lives. This care focuses on the famous Five Freedoms, which seek to make sure animals are protected from pain, disease, discomfort, hunger and thirst, and are allowed to carry out behaviour that is in keeping with animals of their own kind. As part of the Kind Leather programme, JBS Couros has invested in training for farmers to help them provide good conditions for their cattle.

One year later, PrimeAsia and Tyson began telling the world about an initiative called Responsibly Raised10. The beef division of Tyson was already running a programme Open Prairie Natural Meats, which ensures that the cattle involved are all responsibly raised, with strict third-party verification. Animal care standards are an important part of this, with all employees and all partners having to meet them. The animals have a 100% vegetarian diet, and are raised with no antibiotics, no added hormones and no growth-enhancements. PrimeAsia makes a range of leather from the hides arising from this Tyson programme, with each hide traceable to the animal’s place of birth and throughout the production cycle. Later in 2020, PrimeAsia announced it was working with partners in Brazil to apply the Responsibly Raised principles to the hides they supply, too.

Towards the end of 2020, another leather manufacturing group, ISA TanTec, expanded an existing concept called LITE to reflect animal welfare commitments. The group introduced LITE 16 years ago to celebrate the low impact on the environment of its products and manufacturing processes; LITE will now cover its sourcing of cattle hides as well. It has developed a sourcing protocol called Greener Pastures to make sure the hides it sources for its tanneries are traceable to the farm or ranch they came from11. There must be full transparency and documentation to show that these farms meet animal welfare requirements and that treatment of the animals at the time of slaughter is in keeping with the protocols of the US Department of Agriculture’s Humane Handling programme, which includes a list of ten examples of “egregious inhumane treatment” that the people working at slaughter plants must avoid12. ISA TanTec is bringing to market Greener Pastures leather for footwear and luxury products.


Dr Temple Grandin concludes that animals with a well developed nervous system, including cattle, have rights, but this does not mean we cannot breed them, own them, sell them and use them. Laws in most parts of the world mean we can. By the same token, our ownership of them brings with it obligations to treat them well, right up to the moment of slaughter. After that, we have the right to sell, buy and eat the meat and use the by-products, which include the hides. Some people remain unconvinced that people ought to have the right to breed animals and use them in this way, even when treating them well. Temple Grandin said she first addressed this particular question more than 30 years ago: how could she say she cares about animals while designing systems in slaughterhouses that are used to kill them? “I answered this question in 1990,” she recalls. “None of the cattle going into my systems would have existed unless people had bred and raised them.”

1.  Grandin, T. Survey of handling and stunning in federally inspected beef, pork, veal and sheep slaughter plants. ARS Research Project No. 13602-32000-002-08G. United States Dept. of Agriculture, Washington, D.C.
2.  Grandin, T. Effect of animal welfare audits of slaughter plants by a major fast food company on cattle handling and stunning practices. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association
3. articles/ 2020-11-17/fatter-cattle-boost-u-s-meat-output-as-slaughter-rates-sag
12. files/ media_file/2021-02/6900.2-rev3-highlighted.pdf

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