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Animal Welfare: Getting It Right

Temple Grandin

September 20, 2018

By Toni Tarver

There is a growing public perception that people who work in the livestock industry and people who consume bacon, hamburgers, milk, cheese, and other animal products do not truly care about the welfare of food animals. This perception is fueled by an ideology founded on consumers’ and activists’ developing their own concepts of how cattle and other livestock feel, how they would want to live, what they would want to eat, and other assumptions about how food animals would behave if given the opportunity. Perhaps no one knows more about how food animals think and behave than Colorado State University professor Temple Grandin.

“A lot of average consumers now...don’t know where anything comes from,” Grandin says. “Since they don’t know where just about anything comes from, there’s going to be lots of things [they get] wrong.”

Grandin has been consulting on livestock handling and defining humane treatment of food animals for more than 35 years. Because she has Asperger’s syndrome, she perceives things very differently than average consumers and livestock handlers do, allowing her to empathize with cattle and other livestock in ways that most others cannot. “When I first started, I thought everybody thought in pictures," she says. "I didn’t know my thinking was different. It was so obvious to me to look at what [food animals] were seeing.” This puts Grandin in a somewhat unique position: Her empathy for food animals has not reduced or eliminated her consumption of meat and animal products, but it has elevated her understanding of the psychology of animals, helped her design facilities and equipment for the humane handling of livestock, and formed her philosophy about their lives.

“I feel very strongly that the animals that we raise for food, we’ve got to give them a decent life—a life worth living,” she says.

Through a lifetime of working with supply managers and workers at farms and slaughter plants, she has catalyzed systemwide changes in the livestock industry that have gone a long way to ensuring that livestock have decent lives.

Early in her career, in the 1970s, Grandin focused most of her attention on designing equipment for cattle feedlots. At that time, practices and procedures for handling cattle were not great. After spending some time designing equipment such as curved corrals and chute systems for handling cattle on ranches and feedlots, she turned her attention to designing equipment to improve animal experiences at slaughter plants.

To further improve the welfare of livestock from a management perspective, Grandin relied on four strategic criteria: 1) eliminate or minimize catastrophic events, 2) eliminate obvious animal suffering, 3) address animals’ behavioral needs, and 4) ensure that animals have positive emotions. Armed with these criteria as well as a simple scoring system she developed, Grandin made significant improvements in the livestock industry. To eliminate or minimize catastrophic events involving livestock, Grandin persuades livestock suppliers and plant managers to eradicate any instances of purposeful physical abuse to animals and minimize the occurrence of emaciated or lame livestock on ranches and feedlots. By pointing out that it takes only one videotaped instance of a cow being hit with a steel rod or a few emaciated cattle stumbling around pastures and feedlots to ruin the reputation of a supplier and an entire industry, Grandin meets her first criterion for animal welfare.

Grandin uses her scoring system to meet her second criterion, eliminating obvious animal suffering. She trains managers and employees to pay close attention to signs of physical ailments, such as whether the animals are too skinny, have sores or lesions, or are too dirty. In many instances, if these problems are caught early, there are simple fixes to address them.

WATCH: Temple Grandin on the Importance of Animal Welfare

Poor Treatment = Poor Quality

In addition to the ethical benefits of higher animal welfare standards, there are also meat quality benefits. Meat from cattle and other livestock that are stressed tends to be tough, so it is of poorer quality and has lower economic value. In particular, when cattle are exposed to long-term stress caused by climate conditions (i.e., extremes in temperature, excessive precipitation, and wind), rough handling, transportation issues, or anything else that raises their stress levels, this can result in meat characterized as dark-cutting beef.

Another welfare issue in cattle that affects meat quality is bruising. Bruising in cattle and other livestock can result from a variety of environmental or managerial factors, such as rough handling, inadequate handling equipment, electric prodding, fighting among animals (especially bulls) to establish social order, and the presence of horns. Meat from cattle and livestock that are bruised cannot be sold for human consumption at all. The industry has made great progress in reducing the number of really bad bruises on food animals, but certain types of bruising in cattle has persistedpotentially because although food animals are getting bigger, the standardized equipment used to handle them has stayed the same.

Grandin and her Colorado State University colleague, professor Keith Belk, have spent years improving the livestock industry through good, extensive research that is being applied in the field, thereby elevating the welfare of food animals and improving the quality of meat around the world. “I think it’s always the right thing to do,” Belk says. “I get to work with Temple Grandin, so I have the opportunity to learn a lot from her.…We can teach producers the right way to handle livestock as they’re being worked or processed; I think that’s something that really didn’t exist—those kinds of training programs—until maybe the last 10 or 15 years. That’s probably going a long way towards improving and minimizing the issues that are faced by livestock.”

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NOTE: A version of this post originally appeared in the August 2018 edition of Food Technology magazine. Subscribers and IFT members can access the article here.

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