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Leather facts

Essay two: Animal welfare and animals as valuable providers of consumer products

Rights and responsibilities

Animal welfare strategies are at the forefront of how big meat corporations run their businesses these days, and taking into account how the general public would view the way they treat the animals is at the core of these policies. There are audit systems in place, supported by big consumer brands, and abattoirs know they will fail and lose business unless they 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 in this Nothing to Hide essay 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 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 abattoirs and making the systems that packers operate in slaughterhouses better, much better.

She says she saw more improvement in one year, 1999, than in 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 said 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 for driving cattle through abattoirs, such as flags. A more recent 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 sometimes fell far short of the standards Temple Grandin believes people owe to 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 systems 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 and so on.

Famous for applying her experience as someone with autism to her understanding of how conditions in plants affect cattle, Temple Grandin 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 still in use by big consumer-facing companies.

Better information required on ethical questions

It’s inevitable that the question of ethics should come into this discussion. Dr Grandin describes a 2001 paper on this subject by Dr David Fraser of the University of British Columbia3 as “very thoughtful and objective”. Dr Fraser’s perception at the beginning of the century that “a growing popular literature” had created a new perception of raising animals for food and, again by extension, of using the by-products to make materials such as leather. It has done this, he argues, by depicting commercial animal production as being detrimental to animal welfare, controlled by corporate interests and motivated by profit rather than by care, of producing unhealthy food and of harming the environment.

The response to this from meat companies and other players in the value chain was, according to Dr Fraser’s observations, to produce public relations material to show positive images of their businesses and to deny all of the above criticisms. The Canadian academic said the result was that the public has been offered “two highly simplistic and contradictory images” and that scientists and ethicists must provide knowledgeable research and analysis to combat this and to give people better information. Most reasonable people would agree that, 13 years on from Dr Faser’s call, this need for knowledgeable research and analysis is still keen.

Animals, not things

Temple Grandin herself, in 2014, points back to a paper she wrote in 2002, entitled Animals Are Not Things4, to sum up many of her views on the ethics behind raising livestock for slaughter for meat. In this paper, which she prepared for a discussion at the Psychology Department at Harvard University, Dr Grandin makes it clear that she believes people do have the right to farm livestock, send the livestock to slaughter, consume the meat and use the by-products. The animals are the property first of the farmer, then of the packer. Then, after slaughter, the meat becomes the property of the retailer and, later, of the consumer. Each is at liberty to sell what they own and a person who steals a cow from a farm, a carcase from an abattoir, a steak from a supermarket, or the contents of a neighbour’s fridge is likely to face the wrath of the law.

However, the law also takes a strong interest in how owners treat animals up the point of slaughter and, in this way, it’s plain that ownership of a herd of cattle is different from ownership of inanimate objects. Laws are in place in most countries to punish any owner guilty of the mistreatment of cattle. Even if it’s possible to mistreat an inanimate object (Dr Grandin’s example is a screwdriver), such behaviour is unlikely to bring legal repercussions. Value is not what makes the difference: throwing a diamond into the sea from the side of a boat would be unusual behaviour, but would be a legal act, provided owner and thrower are the same person. Clearly, there are instances in which an owner’s actions are restricted by the law, for example with regard to historical buildings or structures that have special architectural or cultural importance, or if a plot of land is of importance to wildlife.

For the purposes of this argument, the main difference, Temple Grandin explains, is pain. “Cows feel pain and screwdrivers do not,” she says. “I am allowed to kill the cow for food but she must be killed in a manner that will not cause pain. Science has shown that animals such as mammals and birds feel pain in a manner similar to humans. Insects, viruses and microbes are not able to feel pain or suffer. As nervous system complexity increases, the animal needs increasing amounts of protection to ensure that it does not suffer from pain.” She has worked for decades to make sure systems in abattoirs protect animals from pain and also from fear. Studies she has done5 show that during handling, cows behave in the same way both at slaughter plants and at feedlots. If the animals knew they were going to die at the abattoir, their behaviour there would be different; they would be wilder and more agitated than at the feedlot. Measurements of cortisol, a hormone released in response to stress, also indicate that stress levels are similar at both facilities.

Her conclusions are that animals with a well developed nervous system have rights, but this does not mean we cannot breed them, own them, sell them and use them. By the same token, our ownership of them brings with it obligations to treat them well, right up to the moment of slaughter. Some people remain unconvinced that we 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 almost a quarter of a century 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, after I had just completed installation of a new piece of equipment I had designed for handling cattle at slaughter plants,” she recalls. “I was standing on a catwalk, as hundreds of cattle passed below to enter my system. In a moment of insight, I thought, none of the cattle going into my system 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 Fraser, D. The “new perception” of animal agriculture. Journal of Animal Science
4 Grandin, T. Animals Are Not Things, A View on Animal Welfare Based on Neurological Complexity, for a discussion on whether or not animals should be property, Department of Psychology, Harvard University, 2002
5 Grandin, T. Welfare of cattle during slaughter and the prevention of non-ambulatory cattle. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association

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