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Leather facts

Animal welfare and animals as valuable providers of consumer products

About this essay

This essay comes from academic papers written by Dr Temple Grandin, a professor of animal sciences at Colorado State University in the US. As well as being an authoritative speaker and writer on the subject of how meat companies should treat cattle, Dr Grandin developed a now widely used scoring system that tells big corporations how well their animal slaughter operations are working. She has said many times that she believes her own situation as a person with autism has helped her understand much better the way animals experience the conditions that people impose on them. Dr Grandin was inducted into the Colorado women’s Hall of Fame in 2012 for her work on livestock welfare and her life story is the subject of an award-winning film made by television company HBO in 2010; actress Claire Danes plays the part of Dr Grandin in the film.

This article tackles the following misrepresentations:

MYTH: Cows and other animals that provide raw materials for leather production are often subjected to cruelty.
FACT: Animal welfare strategies are at the forefront of most big meat corporations and taking into account how the general public would view the way they treat the animals is at the core of these strategies.
MYTH: At abattoirs, stunning practices mean that many animals are skinned while they’re still conscious.
FACT: Audit systems supported by big consumer brands mean any abattoir will fail unless it maintains high standards for moving animals through slaughter plants, treating them with care, stunning them accurately first time and for making sure animals are unconscious at the moment of slaughter.

Executive summary

This essay explains the work animal welfare expert Dr Temple Grandin has done to help abattoirs in many parts of the world improve the way they work. She has said she witnessed more progress in this arena in one year, 1999, than she had in the 25 previous years. What made the difference was the support of some enormous consumer-facing brands, and she singles out fast food chains McDonalds and Wendy for being early adopters.

In the 1990s, these companies began to consider what their supply chains would look like to the general public and, following reports and confirmation of poor treatment of cattle in some slaughter operations, some meat companies were removed from approved supplier lists. Suddenly, packers knew that they would pay a price for falling short of the standards for moving cattle through abattoirs, taking care of them while they were in there (including the elimination of electric prods, the correct use of flooring, lighting, ventilation, mechanical noise-control and so on), and right-first-time stunning before slaughter.

The reverse is true too. What the animal welfare expert describes as “careful, quiet handling of livestock by trained people in good facilities” reduces bruising and helps keep meat quality high. For this combination of reasons, improvements have come and have remained, according to Temple Grandin.

The essay also focuses on the practice of breeding animals to meet demands for meat in the first place. Animals are property under the law in most countries and this gives owners of the animals some rights in the eyes of the law, including the right to sell an animal, slaughter it under the correct conditions and bring the meat (and by-products such as the hide) to market. However, there are legal implications too for mistreatment of animals, and, therefore, animals are not the same kind of property as inanimate objects (Dr Grandin gives the example of a screwdriver). Cows have legal protection from cruelty, pain and suffering. “We owe agricultural animals a decent life,” she argues. And provided we continue to give them a decent life, we are entitled to continue to raise them.

She justifies raising cattle to eat meat because, for the most part, the cattle we eat are unlikely to have lived at all if we had not raised them, and as long as we look after the cattle’s welfare, we are justified in continuing to do so. To take the counter argument to its logical extreme would be to allow many cattle breeds to become extinct, which strikes Dr Grandin as being more harmful to them than looking after them and raising them for food.

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