Temple Grandin is a firebrand in more ways than one. A professor of animal sciences at Colorado State University, she’s been a crusader for change in the beef industry, bringing about the more humane treatment of cattle even when they are being led to slaughter. When she talks, she periodically blazes with passion and humor on any number of topics. She’s not afraid to walk straight into controversy, calling out animal rights activists with as much fervor as the beef industry when she disagrees with them. In a conversation I had with her about a week ago for an upcoming article on the origins of supermarket meats in Springfield, her answers to my questions constantly surprised me.
Grandin recently posted a video on YouTube that was controversial in the beef industry because it shows cattle being slaughtered in a working plant. She decided to do it after an animal rights group posted a video showing cattle still kicking after slaughter, giving the impression that they were still alive when they were hung on the line to be cut up. Her video, made at a plant that adopted her innovations, explains what is happening at each stage of the slaughter process. “When you take the head off, they are still going to kick, because the spinal cord does not die right away,” she told me. She believes the industry should be more open in general about how they do things.
Referring to a video of workers using electric prods on cattle that could hardly walk to get them to slaughter, Grandin blamed dairy farmers for selling cows for meat when they’re old and “half dead.” Clearly outraged, she said, “The dairy industry needs to take some responsibility for the condition of the cows when they sell them. Because when it comes to having bad cows showing up at packing plants, the dairy industry has three times as many skinny emaciated bone racks as the beef industry does.”
But she had a few choice words for the beef industry when the subject turned to the hormones, antibiotics, and other drugs that are given to cattle to make them grow faster. “If you just go for max max max production, and you fill them up full of drugs and hormones, you will have poor quality meat,” she said. In the 1970s when huge cattle breeds were the rage, she recalled, “They had a rib-eye that would cover up the plate–and the meat was terrible. And that was purely genetics. We went through that whole fad. Now we seem to be repeating that mistake, but doing it with hormones and drugs rather than with genetics.”
She traces the rise in “big bad E. coli” in part to the poor quality of cattle feed. In particular, she mentioned the recent trend toward feeding them distillers grains, a byproduct of the corn-based ethanol process. “The ethanol plants get the good stuff and the beef industry gets the leftovers,” she said. “It’s not very good feed. A lot of the goodness has been taken out of it.”
But while she acknowledges that grass-fed cattle have less E. coli than grain-fed, she doesn’t buy the argument that grain is unsuitable feed for cows. Being ruminants, they can eat all kinds of vegetable matter, she said. “I remember a place that was feeding stale Twinkies and things like that to cattle.”
Grandin added that she’d rather eat pork raised inside a confinement building than pasture-raised pork, citing three people who recently got trichinosis from eating it. Trichinosis used to be more prevalent, she explained, because pigs can get it from eating rodents. “When you bring them inside, pigs can’t do really disgusting things like eat rodents. When they’re outside, pigs’ll eat all kinds of nasty things.” Then came a riff on hogs’ predilection for meat. “When you give hogs a choice, they will eat a McDonald’s hamburger first. They’ll gobble it up and then their second choice is a jelly donut. They like apples and things like that, and then they’ll eat ground up, corned pig’s feet last.”
She scours science magazines for information, reading them like tea leaves to divine the future of the industry. More than once, she fretted that some day there won’t be enough water to grow corn. “Oh boy, I was out in Nebraska, looking at all the dead corn. Scary,” she said. “What will probably happen when corn gets to the point where we don’t we have enough–when there are no longer surpluses–cows will go out on pasture and you’ll have less of them. Because another thing people got to remember is that half the agricultural land in the world is rangeland. You cannot crop it. If you want food off that land, the only way you can get food off that land is cattle, sheep, goats, or bison, or elk—ruminant animals that can graze. You can’t grow pigs or chickens on that land.”
After a conversation with Temple Grandin, it becomes clear why HBO made an Emmy-award-winning movie about her life and her triumph over autism.
See her video of humane slaughter at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VMqYYXswono&feature=youtu.be