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Forget the bull on meat production

Animal scientist urges producers to tell it like it is

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Temple Grandin is both the meat industry's greatest asset and its biggest curse.

The animal scientist from Colorado State University often credits her autism for her ability to understand how animals see things and how they experience fear, pain or discomfort.

But it's her way of speaking to people in such a way they want to listen that has made her famous, as illustrated by the 700 people who came out to hear her talk in Brandon recently.

It's tough sticking her into a category. She's not anti-meat, yet she is pro-animal. She willingly works with an industry of which she is its harshest critic.

Grandin won't defend practices such as sow-gestation stalls, but she also points out simply eliminating them without redesigning management of everything from feeding systems to sow genetics to handler training could be disastrous for animal welfare.

That's perhaps one of the most endearing qualities about her -- her uncanny ability to wrap her criticisms of how our society treats animals in incontrovertible straight-talking common sense. That, along with her creative use of descriptions, such as calling the modern-day bulldog a "freakazoid" result of breeding programs that make bad into normal.

Early in her career, Grandin focused on helping design humane handling systems in slaughterhouses, but she soon realized even the best designs would have little effect if management and workers weren't onside.

So she went to the top and began working with meat buyers, starting with McDonalds Corp. in the late 1990s, to develop purchasing policies that recognized animal-welfare goals.

The food sector, both retail and service, is increasingly exercising its might on the animal-welfare file. With the list growing daily of companies serving notice, it's virtually impossible to think sow-gestation stalls have a future in hog-production systems. Ditto for traditional tightly packed battery cages used in the egg industry.

Grandin even had a thing or two to say about the ongoing pink slime debacle in the United States, oddly enough in defence of the lean, finely textured beef, as it is called. Why? In her view, it is a sustainable product because it reduces waste in the order of 6.8 to 13.6 kilograms per carcass.

More beef from a carcass means fewer carcasses are needed, which translates into fewer animals being killed, less feed, fewer feedlots, and on it goes.

For the record, lean, finely textured beef has never been sold in Canada. Health Canada considers the ammonia treatment the product undergoes to kill off bacteria a food additive, which must be approved. No one has yet applied for that approval. That's not likely to change any time soon.

It's pretty hard to find the product in the United States either, after most of the plants manufacturing it closed last month, throwing hundreds of people out of work.

It's hard to say exactly where things started to go so terribly wrong, but it's clear the product's makers and ultimately the whole beef industry was caught flat-footed when the frenzy began.

They could be forgiven for that. After all, the product, which uses a centrifuge to separate the remaining bits of meat from the fat after the main cuts are removed from the carcass and treats it with ammonia to kill bacteria, had been in the food supply for two decades and was used in 70 per cent of ground-beef products.

But BPI Inc., the largest manufacturer of the beef product, refused to comment for two weeks after the story broke in the mainstream media. This was already after it had gone viral in social media.

Two weeks is a long time in the public-engagement business.

Grandin urged producers in her Brandon audience to use social media such as YouTube to tell their stories directly to the public about the ordinary things people do on a farm, not the pumped-up PR "fluff" campaigns. That way, people have a reference point with which to compare the atrocities or food-safety scares the industry's opponents document and circulate.

The animal industry has been good at explaining how important it is to the economy, but it has tended to hide behind the red barn-white picket fence imagery when it comes to its interactions with the public over production practices.

Her advice to a producer's question in Brandon was to post a video explaining what takes place on the farm or in a slaughterhouse in a straightforward, straight-talking manner.

But she also urged producers and the industry to be constantly searching for improvements in the humaneness of production systems, worker training and slaughterhouses.

As she points out, it's better for the people as well as the animals.

Laura Rance is editor of the Manitoba Co-operator. She can be reached at 792- 4382 or by email (laura@fbcpublishing.com)

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 2, 2012 B10

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