Livestock industry’s top “tweaker,” critiques today’s throwaway culture and advocates “hands-on problem solving.”

Written by Jonathan Eisenthal

The recent passing of Silicon Valley titan Steve Jobs (CEO of Apple Corporation) brought many assessments of the particular talents that made him a great technology innovator. His biographer Walter Isaacson and New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell offered the notion that Jobs was one of the great “tweakers”—an innovator whose prowess lay not in wholesale technological change, but in the refinement of existing technologies to make them far more useful.

Temple Grandin, the premier “tweaker” of modern animal agriculture, spoke November 16 to an industry group in a packed ballroom at the Minneapolis Convention Center. It was the annual meeting of Minnesota Agri-Growth Council, a trade group that brings together Minnesota’s Fortune 500 food processing companies, agribusiness and finance concerns and farmer groups. These industries employ one-in-five Minnesotans and generate a huge portion of the state’s economic activity.

Her diagnosis, not of livestock production, but of the culture of early 21st century America: Many people would rather dispense with whole industries instead of fixing problems.

This comes from decades of the development of today’s current, and wrongheaded notion of the proper field for activism, she said. Many people believe the only way to improve life is through tort lawyering.  At times hands-on problem solving offers more immediate and superior solutions, Grandin said.

Sitting together with Minnesota Public Radio interviewer Kerry Miller, Grandin conducted a conversation on her life, work and the current state of animal agriculture.  She wore her trademark black and turquoise western-style shirt.

Grandin has become famous for her pragmatic redesigns of cattle slaughterhouses that simultaneously make the facilities far more humane. As common sense would indicate, reducing fear and anxiety in the animals through very specific improvements in both the physical plant and methods of handling the cattle, result in both greater efficiency and less distress to the animals.

Grandin has risen to prominence in this field not in spite of, but because she is “differently abled” in modern parlance. Her condition as a high functioning autistic person allows her to process information differently from most people, and to gather and communicate unique insights about animal behavior and needs.

Among the changes she has brought to cattle slaughter: elimination of reflective surfaces and lighting problems (sometimes shadows, sometimes bright lights) at key points in slaughter facilities that frighten cattle; the elimination of slippery flooring. Just as important, Grandin has developed pragmatic diagnostic tools that help assess whether a slaughterhouse is functioning properly. For instance, the very concrete measurement that if more than three animals in a hundred are mooing constantly—a sign of alarm—the facility is not working right.

Looking ahead to changes that could offer still more improvements, Grandin suggested that slaughter plants not only offer educational tours, but actually livestream video of what they are doing over the Internet, in order to short-circuit erroneous claims made by animal rights advocacy groups.

“By the way, calling them harvest facilities is BS!” said the no-nonsense Grandin. “Call ‘em what they are—slaughtering plants.”   

She repeated to this audience her philosophical notion that without our use of cattle, these millions of animals would never have been bred and born.

Therefore, a humane animal agriculture is an undeniable good from the viewpoint of the animals themselves—a viewpoint into which Grandin’s autism allows her to have unique insights. She thinks far more visually than the average person, and so is able to look at cattle feedlots and register patterns in the motion of the cattle that indicate reactions to the physical set up and the methods of human handlers.

Her fame increased astronomically when a biopic film starring Claire Danes told Grandin’s compelling story. Rather than institutionalization—the fate of many autistic people growing up the 50s and 60s—her mother arranged for early one-on-one intervention and consistently advocated for educational alternatives that allowed Grandin to pursue her dreams and become a doctor of animal husbandry.

Asked about further needed changes for animal agriculture, Grandin told the group there is no excuse for “downers” – animals that arrive at slaughter sites too weak to stand and walk on their own so that they literally fall down. Improper treatment, inattention to proper breeding or a combination of both is to blame. Sow gestation pens must go, she said, criticizing the practice that doesn’t allow the pig enough room to turn around for most of her life.

“Two thirds of people can’t take the idea of gestation pens,” she said.

Grandin represents the need for a critical and pragmatic approach, but one that does not for an instant suggest that the solution is ending animal agriculture. Looking at both producers and consumers she noted that people seem to want “the thing without the management required to (properly) make it.”

She said there are companies doing it right out there, including McDonald’s, which was among the first to employ her slaughter house animal handling methods and physical plant designs. Both Cargill and Swifts now use video auditing to assure that facilities hew to a humane and efficient practice.

“(Industry method) problems develop slowly, and ‘bad’ becomes ‘normal.’ You have to give me a fit animal. That I can handle,” said Grandin. “They (cattle) live a pretty good life. Other (domesticated) animals still have a ways to go.”

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