CNN — Ryan Goodman has been involved in agriculture all of his life, working on ranches across the country, as well as studying cattle nutrition and reproduction at the college levels. He works daily with farmers and ranchers, helping their voices become part of the national dialogues on food and agriculture topics. You can reach him on Twitter @AgProudRyan, as well as his personal blog, AgricultureProud.com.
Transparency in food and agriculture can have different meanings to different groups of people. As Illinois farmer, Katie Pratt, recently discussed on Eatocracy, transparency includes having an open mind for education on both sides of the plate. The issue of animal slaughter is a topic that brings much heated discussion. Recent efforts to improve the transparency in this area continue to be met with much resistance.
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. As the author suggests, increasing visibility in slaughterhouses would be a good thing, but there is a problem with that. Americans are so far removed from the reality and graphic nature of the process of death, that images of animal slaughter can stir quite the negative response.
A good example of this comes from a California rancher, Megan Brown, sharing her custom exempt (meaning free from continuous inspection as it's only providing meat for the animal's owner) 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 community) for being transparent and explaining how her animals were harvested.
There are several farm-to-fork, local food producers across the country doing a great job of connecting with their customers and answering their questions. However, not all of these messages are a fair representation of larger-scale agriculture. I think we can all admit that there is room for improvement when it comes to transparency across the entire food and agriculture spectrum.
Forrest Pritchard, local farmer in the D.C. area, has done a great job with transparency and 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, Forrest’s new book, "Gaining Ground," has been touted as one of the best new reads of the summer.
There is a saying 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 has not turned me away from meat consumption.
I have had the opportunity to tour both large and small processors, like Tyson, JBS, Cargill, and even regional processors. All of these processors have common goals of keeping the animals calm prior to and during the slaughter process, preventing food safety concerns throughout the entire process, and keeping employees and visitors safe. It is not easy to open access to the slaughter facility and keep these priorities intact, but the meat industry is working to open doors in other ways.
The American Meat Institute and Dr. 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 than anyone else on how animals are handled prior to and during the slaughter process. AMI and Grandin have teamed up for a few videos that walk us through slaughter plants that represent the industry, explain what is occurring, and why it is done that way.
Last August, AMI released a video walking viewers through a beef plant. Part Two of the Glass Walls project was released earlier this year and walks viewers through the process of getting pigs to slaughter and the steps involved. For a print version of this information, AMI has this PDF available. There are also many great resources related to animal welfare and handling at animalhandling.org.
We may not all be able to visit slaughterhouses in large groups and I do not expect these videos to completely change the perceptions of meat industries, but opportunities to learn from a distance are extremely important. I do hope folks will receive efforts like these as a move toward better transparency.