Temple Grandin continues to advocate for improved animal welfare standards.
Dr. Temple Grandin continues to advocate for improved animal welfare standards based on a real-world approach. (Photo: Rosalie Winard)

It’s a typical day for Temple Grandin. On this mid-October morning, she is in another hotel in another city preparing to give another series of presentations on a topic that is her life’s work. Hundreds of miles from her home base in Fort Collins, Colo., Grandin – a professor of livestock behavior and welfare at Colorado State Univ. – is in Kansas City, Mo., for the annual Animal Care & Handling Conference, an annual event that began in 1999 and has become a must-attend for anyone working in the meat-processing industry supply chain, and especially for those responsible for working with livestock on a daily basis. At the conclusion of the conference, which Grandin has never missed, her schedule always dictates that she head directly to an annual autism conference also held in Kansas City, where she is the keynote speaker.

The following week, Grandin, whose consulting company Grandin Livestock Handling Systems Inc. takes her to slaughtering facilities all over the world to advise operators and train animal welfare auditors, will head south and shift back into animal-welfare mode as she makes a presentation to meat science students at Texas A&M Univ.; another airport, another hotel, another podium where she will address another packed room full of captivated attendees. In between presentations, the energy-rich 68-year-old mingles with and poses for dozens of photographs with attendees. She autographs books, which are merchandised for sale at a table in the reception area. She is accustomed to greeting random, star-struck passers-by who often just want to meet her and perhaps shake her hand.

Evolving issues

During the animal care conference each year, the North American Meat Institute’s (NAMI) Animal Welfare Advisory Committee meets over dinner and discusses some of the current challenges and opportunities facing the industry. The topics of the committee’s attention depend on the issues most important to the meat and poultry industry in any given year. Likewise, the presentations at the conference reflect the issues of most concern to the industry and its stakeholders. This year, some of the hot-button issues include consumer perceptions and misperceptions; the potential impact of petitions filed with the US Dept. of Agriculture (USDA) by animal rights extremists; and the growing emphasis on accountability and proper care of animals during transport.

One of those polarizing issues involves the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service being petitioned this past September by animal rights groups to strictly enforce a requirement in the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act (HMSA) regarding stunning with the penalty for noncompliance being suspension of inspection. Citing the HMSA requirement that “all animals must be rendered insensible on the first blow,” the coalition of animal rights groups says there is no place for discretion among inspectors who witness a missed stun and that it should result in the plant’s inspection being suspended with no warning or opportunities to improve.

Currently, the NAMI’s auditing guidelines require a minimum of 95 percent of animals be rendered insensible on the first stun. 

Temple Grandin makes time to exchange ideas and information.
Grandin visits with conference attendees.

“Trying to make stunning perfect is stupid,” Grandin says, which isn’t to say that first-shot stunning rates shouldn’t be as high as possible. Grandin suggests moving toward raising the current standard as high as 98 percent as opposed to requiring 100 percent. She says a more reasonable response to a missed stun is to issue the plant a noncompliance record (NR) and let that serve as a warning. She adds that an approach similar to how police issue traffic citations should be adopted.

“Let’s use traffic as our model. You can have three speeding tickets before you get in trouble,” Grandin suggests as a more realistic option. “You can’t change what is in the Humane Slaughter Act. That was written in 1958 and it’s cast in stone,” but interpreting enforcement needs to remain flexible due to the dynamics of working with live animals.

Compliance and enforcement of the statute are separate issues and few would argue the coalition of animal rights group’s petition of making violations to the stunning policy a one-and-done proposition is not feasible in real-world situations. Grandin thinks compromise is the only option. “Do you take somebody’s license away for one speeding ticket?” she says. “No. Let’s use traffic as a model,” she repeats.

“That’s the problem now. With too many issues there are no compromises. It doesn’t matter what the issue is,” and that applies in and outside of the agriculture industry, she says. “It’s like regulations have gone nuts. The Humane Slaughter Act has been on the books since 1958, but it’s never been enforced like this.”

Extreme approaches like this make corporate executives nervous and with good reason, Grandin suggests. More than ever before the leaders of companies are being legally pursued, and some are being sentenced to jail for allowing what is deemed to be corner-cutting or negligence. It’s a dangerous precedent that Grandin thinks is detrimental.

“If you get too strict on that kind of stuff, no one is going to want to run a business in this country,” she adds.

To shut a plant down based on one “double knock” is crazy, according to Grandin, but that thinking is supported and promoted by people who don’t have any practical experience to back up the policies they push.

|||Read More: Politics as usual?|||
Politics as usual?

Temple Grandin has never missed the NAMI Animal Care & Handling Conference.
“I’m really concerned about the future,” Grandin says.

Always taking a politics-neutral stance and keeping her political affiliation private, Grandin purports that bipartisanship is creating unresolvable conflicts on issues that can affect the companies in the food business and beyond. 

“Everything’s getting more radical,” she says, “more radical right, more radical left, and we’re getting (to the point) where people can’t get things done.” Meanwhile, she says the policymakers in the middle, “the moderates who can actually fix things, are getting bashed from both sides,” and it is deterring other would-be politicians from ever getting involved.

“I don’t usually even talk about politics, but I’ve been watching things. All the reasonable people are going, ‘eck! I’m not going to touch this,’ because they’re sick of getting bashed from both sides,” Grandin says.

She says as an “older person” she vividly recalls the days when partisanship didn’t hinder progress. “I can remember when the interstate highway system was built by Republicans, and the Democrats went to the moon,” she says. “We did stuff,” and society evolved positively because of it.

Today, Grandin says many younger people don’t learn skills that translate into lifelong lessons and making important contributions to society. For them, skills like woodworking, sewing and cooking are foreign concepts. Grandin recalls a valuable lesson she learned after working on a sewing project while in school in the 1950s. The project didn’t go as she hoped. “I totally wrecked it by sewing it wrong. Yes, I was careless and tried to do it too fast,” Grandin says.

She learned early on that perfection isn’t always possible with practical things; it is a concept she applies to her stance on important issues on the animal welfare front.

“I’m really concerned about the future,” she says, and focusing on changing the next generation is part of the solution.

“We’ve got to get kids back doing hands-on things in the schools. We’ve got to learn how to do ‘stuff’ again,” she exclaims, almost standing up out of her chair. “We don’t do enough ‘stuff’ in this country anymore.”

Skilled crafts, including industrial mechanics, millwrights, construction designers and engineers, are seemingly becoming forgotten trades. “There are kids that are interested in those jobs, but they just don’t get close to it,” Grandin laments. For example, “I got interested in cattle because I was exposed to them when I was 15.”

Change for the good

HSUS can and has taken action that forced the industry to change some of its practices, she says, and some of those changes, including some of the undercover videos taken in plants, have resulted in positive changes and penalizing bad players. But petitioning the USDA to require a single shot in the knock box 100 percent of the time isn’t one of them. “This isn’t the kind of stuff that makes constructive change,” she says.

To that point, the agricultural community responding to undercover videos by pushing for ag-gag laws, which would prevent plant workers from going public with video footage, is not the answer, Grandin says. “That’s the stupidest thing ever. They might as well put up a big sign saying, ‘I’m guilty.’”

Social media is doing plenty to advance the cause of animal welfare groups while the agriculture community tends to reside in its internet silos where like-minded people feed off each other’s common points of view. 

Dr. Temple Grandin
Grandin learned early on that perfection isn’t always possible with practical things.

Grandin is no stranger to getting scrutinized by extremists on both sides of the animal welfare issue. “I’ve been bashed by the animal rights radicals, and I’ve been bashed by stupid ag people who are so far inside the box they don’t know the box exists.” One such example is Grandin’s speaking out against the use of gestation stalls by pork producers, which drew the ire of many in the pork industry. “And then animal rights activists bash me because I’m not a vegan. The super radicals on both sides of the issues are getting bigger and bigger voices.”

Grandin isn’t worried about getting bashed for her stances and no amount of scrutinizing her will influence or change what the industry does on the animal welfare front. However, animal rights activists petitioning the USDA is, indeed, detrimental to the industry, more so than any undercover video.

She is worried about a movement that sees values and opinions usurping sound science, she says, circling back to the dilemma surrounding stunning enforcement.

If stricter enforcement is the issue, Grandin’s traffic-based model could deliver a compromise and a solution, she reiterates. “We can give the plants more speeding tickets, but we don’t take someone’s license away for going one mile an hour over the speed limit one time,” and this shouldn’t apply to enforcing the stunning requirements under the HSA.

Regardless of partisanship, demographic or geographical area, general traffic rules work well universally using point systems that are similar and enforcement that is measureable. “It works because traffic laws are something everybody has practical experience with. Give the plants three speeding tickets and then they start to get in trouble,” Grandin suggests. “It’s strict, but sensible.”