The Cattle Whisperer
Katy Keiffer / July 2011
Katy Keiffer follows Temple Grandin, the expert on designing humane livestock facilities, on her rounds to improve conditions for the animals ultimately intended for our plates.
If you had told me a year ago that I would have the renowned animal scientist Dr. Temple Grandin on my speed dial, I would have thought it about as likely as my growing a tail. But miracles do happen, and though I still don’t have a tail, I can claim Grandin as a friend.
Through a series of improbable circumstances, a tour of the Fort Morgan Cargill plant was arranged for me by contacts at Certified Angus Beef. CAB is an upscale brand of beef widely sold through supermarket chains and to restaurants. The CAB label requires a very stringent set of 10 qualifying criteria, including consistent size, color, age, genetics, fat cap, and marbling, among others.
My CAB contacts and I arrived at the Cargill plant for an orientation plus a full tour. A thorough education in cattle processing and grading ensued, with each department head as well as the plant manager, Nicole Johnson-Hoffman, offering a detailed explanation of their role in rendering cattle from living quadrupeds to specialized cuts, packaged and ready for shipment. Travis Hoffman from Colorado State University and CAB meat scientist Clint Walenciak explained how and why beef is approved for the CAB label. I’m not sure I could get a job as a grader yet, but I can spot a great looking piece of meat.
Very few journalists have been granted access to this plant, or any processing plant for that matter. In fact, the opacity of meat packers has been quite detrimental to their public image. Several weeks after my visit (evidently a trial run), the doors were opened to The Oprah Winfrey Show, and her reporter, Lisa Ling, took the same tour.
Grandin arrived at the plant, bearing a copy of her book, Animals Make Us Human, for me, and a sheaf of 8-by-10 photos of herself that she autographed for the plant personnel. She had only designed the animal handling end of this plant, but is thoroughly informed about every aspect of the process.
Johnson-Hoffman informed me that Cargill had invested nearly a billion dollars in implementing new technologies to improve food safety. From infrared cameras that spot organic matter on the carcass to the extraordinarily complex steps by which the hide is removed, these technological advances have had a significant impact on managing and eliminating pathogens. The Fort Morgan plant is one of the largest in the Cargill empire, processing 4,500 cattle a day in two eight-hour shifts. The third eight-hour segment is used to clean the plant thoroughly. It smells, not of blood or raw meat, but rather of steam and antimicrobials.
As for Grandin, I had no idea what to expect. Like many Americans, I had seen Temple Grandin, the HBO movie that details her struggles with autism, and assumed that Claire Danes was playing a highly sugarcoated version of her persona. As it turned out, Danes was on the money. Grandin was on the set for much of the shoot, making sure that the scenes were accurate and that she herself was portrayed truthfully. She loved the whole experience and had nothing but compliments for the writers, actors, and everyone involved.
Grandin is charming, chatty, and friendly. She is quick to smile, and even giggle, though, as she explained to me, her sense of humor is predicated on the visual images that occur to her when someone is talking. So if one were to say that such and such would only happen when pigs fly, she would probably laugh, because she would literally see an image of pigs flying. Her manner is emphatic and a little breathless, because there is so much to say and she is so interested in so many things.
Animal handling may be her field, but given her many years in the industry, she is an expert on all aspects of a slaughtering and packing facility and the many improvements she has seen implemented. For example, this plant has, among other innovations, a 24-hour video monitoring stream throughout the plant that is audited by a third party. “I’m a big fan of video audit. I’ve been writing about industry opening its doors to the public for a decade. I’m proud of what I do, and I want people to see it!”
After lunch we stepped out to the animal handling facilities that feature the Grandin design. When cattle are shipped to a processing plant, they need to rest and relax for at least six hours before they are slaughtered. The holding pens are large, and there must be enough room for every animal to lie down. If the temperature is really high, the animals are misted with water so they’re not stressed by heat, and they’re given water to drink.
It should be noted that stressed animals pump out a lot of cortisol and other hormones that have a negative effect on the flavor and texture of meat. This will reduce its value in the marketplace. Thus, Grandin’s unique insight—born out of her autistic experience—into what makes animals fearful has made meat processing more profitable and no doubt accounts for the ready adoption of her methods by the industry.
We sat some distance away from the pens, while Grandin explained what would happen next. She instructed us to speak softly and move quietly, so the cows would not feel alarmed. “Animals will be more scared by loud voices than by loud machines,” she told us. “They can get used to the sound of machinery, but shouting will always upset them.”
After the animals are rested, they are moved in groups of about 30 up to a pen that opens into a serpentine track. This is where Grandin’s genius for interpreting animal thinking is most evident. Her observation of cattle behavior led her to understand that what they like is to walk in a circle. “The serpentine must make a 180 degree semi-circle. When they come off the crowd pen and into the serpentine, they must be able to see that they are going somewhere, or they will not move,” she explained. They can see what’s ahead, but not too far. The walls of the serpentine are just about eye level for them, so there is nothing to startle them from the sides on their trip to the kill floor.
As we watched, from a distance of about six feet so as not to distract the animals, they moved single file at a stately pace up the track. Another important observation of Grandin’s was that the lighting has to be perfect, too, so they can see well. Cattle are afraid of the dark and any kind of shadow or reflection will spook them. There were a couple of workers who walked along the side of the serpentine, encouraging the animals to keep moving. They carried red “rattle paddles,” which they would shake gently if a cow stopped moving. While we watched, one worker, who was new to the plant, was being too vigorous with his paddle. Grandin stepped over to his supervisor to intervene. It should be noted that in past years, the electric prod was the weapon of choice for moving animals along. The rattle paddle is a distinct improvement.
Besides her groundbreaking design work, Grandin’s greatest contribution to animal welfare has been to bring a codified set of rules about how animals are to be treated in any plant. (Her basic guidelines can be downloaded at www.animalhandling.org.) She explained that getting plants to sign up for her designs is rarely a problem. What is really difficult is training staff. “Twenty percent of the people working in the field are natural stockmen. Fifty percent of them can be trained to be good. The rest are people who just shouldn’t be allowed near animals.” She spends much of her time now writing very detailed protocols for animal handling that are specifically directed toward the staff and that leave absolutely nothing to their imagination. Thanks to her visual thinking, she can picture every single movement of animals and the humans in charge, and thus can be extraordinarily precise in her instructions.
The last stage of the serpentine is set up like a tunnel, with covered top and sides. The animals can see light, but not so much that they see what is happening. When they enter this tunnel, a floor comes up and presses against the chest, the sides squeeze gently so the cattle are cradled as the conveyor moves them smoothly forward. As their heads come out of the tunnel, the “knocker” is there, waiting to put the bolt against the forehead and pull the trigger on his compressed air gun, sending a six inch bolt into the skull. The animal is rendered brain-dead immediately. The Grandin center track system has had a major impact on streamlining and improving cattle slaughter and is now deployed in over 50 percent of the processing plants in the United States, as well as being used in many other countries.
“I am asked all the time if the animal knows it is going to die,” Grandin said matter-of-factly. “The answer is that they behave exactly the same when they are lined up for vaccination, or tagging, or anything else we have to do to them.” There is no sentimentality about her attitude toward animals, just a commitment to making their interaction with humans as humane and stress-free as possible. Because she avoids the politics surrounding animal husbandry, she is trusted by the entirety of the agricultural livestock spectrum, from the biggest commercial entities to the small family farm. She is dismayed by the strident opposition between the two camps and is often heard saying that “there is room for both niche market cattle and commodity cattle in our food system, and the goal is to have the process work well in all facilities.”
At the end of the tour, my CAB contacts were heading straight for the Denver Airport while I was doomed to spend the rest of the afternoon and evening alone in my dreary motel. With what I realized later is her customary generosity, Grandin offered to drive me there, hang out with me in my motel room, and then have an early dinner with me. She is easy to talk to, and there is no end to the topics that interest her. Since she has worked as an engineer and in construction for most of her life, she possesses a wealth of knowledge about the costs, and challenges, for smaller plants in dealing with the animal welfare issues that are critical to every livestock facility.
While we lounged around my motel room, Grandin returned a slew of phone calls and caught up on her scheduling. Despite being a real gear head, she isn’t crazy about computers, or the ubiquitous BlackBerry or iPhone. She keeps an old-fashioned paper calendar, printed out from a computer, in which I observed that literally every single day was completely filled with her tiny scrawl. It was breathtaking how busy she is.
In addition to her design work, Grandin is a professor at Colorado State University; writes protocols on animal handling; gives talks all over the country for the meat industry and for autism; and writes papers, books, and editorials in her spare time. This spring Grandin is publishing an updated version of her book on autism, The Way I See It.
The Fort Morgan Cargill plant is engaging in yet another round of renovation and expansion over the next year and a half, and I’ve been invited to return for another tour. While industrialized beef production can seem horrifying, environmentally disastrous, and even immoral to some, I actually found it quite reassuring. The knowledge that one of the industry giants has made such a serious commitment to doing everything right—from the way they treat the animals to the cleanliness of the plant and the way they process waste and wastewater—was impressive and appropriate, given their volume. This was truly the gold standard in meat production, and I got to see it with Grandin. When I returned to New York City, I was crowned Queen of the Meatheads. You may now kiss my ring.