In the debate over transparency in our food systems and recent 'ag gag' bills/laws across the country, there has been a lot of fuss about slaughterhouses and the consumers' ability to visualize what happens during livestock slaughter. The New York Times ran an opinion article titled "Open the Slaughterhouses" that opened debate on the 'ag gag' bills and our ability to report cases of animal cruelty.
In this country we are very desensitized to acts of death and violence, so simply opening up the slaughterhouse images can stir quite the negative response. A good example of this comes from Megan Brown sharing her custom exempt slaughter images and experience when harvesting both cattle and hogs at her family's farm. Megan received a lot of criticism (some from within the livestock business) for being transparent and explaining how her animals were harvested.
Forrest Pritchard, local farmer in the D.C. area, has also done a great job with transparency, communicating with his customers about how food animals are raised, fed, and processed. His blog answers several questions from his Farmer's Market customers and one of his recent posts took a brief tour of his local custom slaughterhouse. (By the way, here is my review of Forrest's new book, Gaining Ground, released May 2013. I promise it's well worth the read.)
There are several farm-to-fork, local food producers across the country that do a great job of connecting with their customers and answering their questions. However, not all of these messages cast commodity, or larger-scale agriculture in a positive light. Frankly, those larger-scale food producers have not done a good job at transparency. Or at least there is room for improvement.
As the author of the NYT Opinion piece suggests, increasing visibility in slaughterhouses would be a good thing, but there’s a problem with that. As we are so far removed from the reality and graphic nature of the process of death, imagery of animal slaughter comes as a shock to those who do not know what is occurring. Shoot those images straight out over the waves and of course it is a gruesome scene.
I haven’t been to a large number of slaughter houses, but the visits I have taken have been very educational. It’s amazing the massive amount of steps taken to ensure fair handling of the animals prior to, during, and after the harvest process. Food safety is a major concern for all of these processors. I’ve visited large processors like Tyson and JBS along with small regional processors. All my beef and pork as a youth was harvested at our local slaughterhouse. In college, I had the opportunity to take courses where we went through the entire process of harvesting the animal and processing the meat.
There’s a saying passed around to the effect of “If slaughterhouses had glass walls, everyone would stop eating meat.” Through all of my experiences I consider myself more aware of how my meat is harvested, and feel safe when consuming products from our American food system. It certainly hasn’t turned me away from meat consumption.
The American Meat Institute and Temple Grandin are working together to fix a possible disconnect by grasping the glass walls approach. Dr. Grandin is an established animal welfare scientists who has had more impact on how animals are handled prior to and during the slaughter process. AMI and Grandin have teamed together for a few videos that walk us through the slaughter plants for beef and pork. Dr. Grandin chose plants that represent the industry and explain what is occurring and why it is done that way.
Last August, AMI released a video walking viewers through a beef plant as Dr. Grandin explains what is occurring.
Part Two of the Glass Walls project was released this month by AMI. In the second video, Dr. Grandin walks viewers through the process of getting pigs to slaughter and the steps involved in the process.
We may not all be able to visit slaughter houses, and I don’t expect these videos to make people remove their distrust of meat industries, but opportunities to learn from a distance are extremely important. I do hope folks will receive them as a move toward better transparency.
Do you appreciate efforts like this from the meat industries to share more information about how animals are handled and slaughtered?
- If Slaughter Houses Had Glass Walls… (slowmoneyfarm.wordpress.com)
- A Look Inside Glass Walls of a Slaughterhouse… A Pork Plant (chicolockersausage.com)