In the Age of Viral Video, Livestock Farms Must Embrace Transparency

Temple Grandin says that in addition to improving animal welfare, ag needs to open up.

Temple Grandin speaks at American Farm Bureau Federation’s annual convention in San Diego on Jan. 11. (Photo: American Farm Bureau Federation/Twitter)

Jan 12, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Clare Leschin-Hoar's stories on seafood and food politics have appeared in Scientific American, Eating Well and elsewhere.

SAN DIEGO—Dr. Temple Grandin, the doyenne of humane slaughter facility design and an expert on farm animal livestock behavior, had a tough message for the 4,500 attendees at the American Farm Bureau Federation’s annual convention in San Diego on Sunday: “There are some practices that are going to have change,” she told the gathering of the country’s largest ag organization.

Standing at the podium dressed in her signature Western wear, Grandin didn’t mince words after being presented with the Distinguished Service Award, the AFBF’s highest honor. “Fixing the slaughter plants was easy, but now I see some problems we’re going to have to fix at the farm level,” she said.

“[We’re] pushing animal production to the point that we’re starting to have trouble with animal biology. We need to look at what is optimal, not what’s maximum,” she added, pointing to an increase in lame or emaciated dairy cows showing up at slaughtering facilities.

As someone championed by both the status quo and reformers in the ag industry—and thanks to her fame as a highly successful autistic person (who has been portrayed on-screen by Claire Danes)—Grandin may be the only person whose seal of approval is held in high regard by activists and ranchers alike. But as ever, she focused on the animals and called on the industry to make further changes—not just in terms of welfare but with regard to transparency too.

“We also have to remember everybody’s got one of these,” she said, waving her iPhone to the crowd. “You can’t get away from video cameras anymore. So what we need to be doing is changing some practices and opening up the doors.” Despite recent controversies over so-called ag-gag laws, some in the industry, like Indiana-based Fair Oaks Farm, are already making progress on this front. Visitors to the hog ranch can opt for the “Pig Adventure,” a firsthand look at a modern livestock operation.

But last week’s controversial video of alleged inhumane treatment of egg-laying hens at Petaluma Farms offers a timely example of the distrust a closed-door mentality can fuel.

“There were no wide-angle shots” in the video, said Grandin. “There was no way to judge from the video if [the facility] was good or bad. I could only see four-to-five awful-looking chickens.” But for many in the public—and the media—a few sad-looking birds is all it takes for a video to go viral.

After viewing the footage, Grandin said she immediately called up Whole Foods, which sources eggs from the farm and told the company to push the supplier to allow greater access to the farm by Monday.

“We need to be opening up the doors. That’s the best thing you can do. If you get trashed, you’re going to have to show it,” she said. According to Grandin, openness about meat industry practices—and showing consumers why those practices are in place—could go a long way toward alleviating public distrust.

“Look at the pink slime debacle. Part of the problem there was that it was a surprise. Consumers don’t like surprises. If it had been on the label, there probably wouldn’t have been so many problems,” she said.

It wasn’t all bad news. Grandin said handling at slaughter facilities has improved drastically since the 1980s and ’90s and is an industry bright spot. She pointed to good grazing practices as a way to improve land quality while bringing the added benefit of providing water sources for nearby wildlife.

“I eat all meats. I’m no vegan or vegetarian—and I plan to keep on eating them, but we need to give them a decent life,” she said. “We have to do things right. We have to look at everything we do and think about how will this play out on YouTube.”