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Students get a look inside as meat industry pulls back curtain

Updated: 2013-10-19T02:58:30Z

By JOE ROBERTSON

The Kansas City Star

The baby-faced teenagers in their blue Future Farmers of America jackets weren’t here to help the massive meat-processing industry conceal itself.

Not anymore.

The message sounding from the Animal Care and Handling Conference in Kansas City this week was all about openness.

No more propping up children with bottle-fed calves in their arms, while hiding the animal slaughter behind industrial walls on America’s back roads.

The tender stories the future farmers told still resonated. Many of the meat and poultry processors in the audience started like Prairie View High School senior Cruz Gillespie of La Cygne, Kan., who told of the care he gave his pigs, staying up all night when one was ill, waiting on the vet.

“It’s a way of living for people who love animals,” Prairie View classmate Ted Chambers said.

But the students also got an insider’s look as working professionals shared ideas over two days on onerous tasks, like the best ways to deliver and process some 2,000 head of cattle through a slaughterhouse in a day.

Most Americans eat meat. A lot of it. The industry in one month slaughters some 3 million head of a cattle and more than 9 million hogs to feed that demand.

It’s time to show America how animals are taken to slaughter, industry leaders say. Show them the right way — the way that the 300 meat and poultry handlers gathered in Kansas City said most of them operate day after day.

Let the teenagers — the future farmers — see it. Let them meet the industry’s icon for humane animal care: Temple Grandin.

Grandin, whose HBO movie immortalized her rise over autism to become a persistent champion in designing humane slaughterhouses, is narrating new industry videos.

The Glass Walls project has put beef, pork and turkey processing plants on display.

The agricultural science programs at Prairie View and Marmaton Valley High School in Moran, Kan., brought students to the conference. Those schools were among several in the country whose teachers requested DVDs to make them part of their curriculum.

The American Meat Institute enlisted them to share the videos within their schools. They also wanted the students to watch the documentary “Food Inc.” and see its harsh criticisms of America’s food processing and eating habits.

This is part of the industry’s new strategy, AMI spokeswoman Janet Riley said — getting out in front, openly, to talk about what it does.

Because vigilant animal protection organizations have long been America’s first messenger on what is happening in meat plants.

The abuses that occur — the mistakes, the flawed or negligent operators — hit the Internet and chill a nation that cherishes its companion pets and is outraged by pain and suffering when it happens to chickens, cows and pigs.

“You have a credibility deficit,” Candace Croney told the audience of animal handlers in the conference’s keynote session Wednesday.

Consider the vantage point of the typical American pet owner confronting the recurring internal conflict over the food at their table, said Croney, a Purdue University associate professor of animal sciences.

“They (the animal rights organizations) understand animals and seem to be really trying to help,” Croney said. “You (the animal food industry) seem like you’re trying to hurt them and profit from them. Who are you going to trust?”

People know that the large, industrial operations exist. How else do so many large grocery stores and every McDonald’s in America get so much meat?

“You have to show them,” Croney said. “You have to show that the ‘big bad’ can have good relationships with animals. But you can’t do that if you’re not doing it well. So do it well.”

Grandin, a professor of animal science at Colorado State University, has revolutionized livestock facilities with animal-calming designs that are now used in most meat plants.

They feature curved walkways with non-slick floors, free of bright lights and other distractions. Handlers trained to understand flight paths and herd movements eliminate the need for electric prods.

Animals should be moving easily and quietly, without bellowing, in small groups from the trucks to the pens and to the final chute. There, each animal is expected to be knocked out on the first attempt, whether by stun gun for cattle or a carbon-dioxide chamber with pigs, and rendered completely insensible before any processing begins.

Grandin met with some of the students, and they talked about the need to spark young interest in animal science. She told of how it was her early interest and work in farm animal handling that helped her focus energy that was so scrambled by autism.

Honesty remained an underlying theme. Grandin scoffed at the word “harvest” as a substitute for describing animal slaughter. “A bunch of b.s.,” she said.

The original title on the beef processing video she narrated — which proposed using the words “humane handling” — hinted at the old lack of confidence that people can accept what they do.

“It’s a meat plant,” she said.

Food processing and the genuine care for the animals that farmers sacrifice can stand in a single frame, the future farmers and their teachers said.

Prairie View agricultural science teacher Tom Schull left the conference Wednesday night, having been immersed in all the mechanics of humane slaughterhouse operations, and returned to his own field of cattle.

He tended them until 9 p.m., putting off his dinner until he was done.

“That’s how you treat your animals,” he said. “Whether they weigh a ton or not, we care for them the best we can.”

To reach Joe Robertson, call 816-234-4789 or send email to jrobertson@kcstar.com.

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