FORT COLLINS, Colo. — In a close corner of a cattle pen, Temple Grandin sits on the dusty ground.
Her legs drawn in, her eyes all but shut, she silently waits for nearby cows to sniff her out. After a few minutes, they draw near. She coaches a visitor to do the same, until the cattle curiously lick at pant legs and quietly stare with their blank eyes. In a couple weeks, they’ll be on the dinner table.
“We’re getting up close and personal with certified Angus beef,” she says.
An associate professor of animal science at Colorado State University, Grandin can take more credit than almost anyone for trying to make modern slaughterhouses efficient and humane. Once considered curious, if eccentric, her audits and remodeling of processing plants have set new standards in the meat industry, which has come to embrace her message: Give the animals you eat a decent life and a humane death.
More from TODAY.com
TODAY's Takeaway: Nigella Lawson testifies, parents talk teens
1. Celebrity chef Nigella Lawson admitted in court Wednesday to using cocaine multiple times in her life, but called claim...
- Behold! Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree lights up the night
- 'Tips for Jesus' spreads the wealth in massive restaurant tips
- Down, Sunny! First dog knocks 2-year-old over at White House
- Lawrence, 'Hustle' earn NY Critics awards
- TODAY's Takeaway: Nigella Lawson testifies, parents talk teens
“They just walk up there in a quiet line, and they walk up the conveyor and they’re shot, and it’s over before they know what’s happened,” she says. “It’s almost hard for me to believe it works.”
She says this while cutting into a thick steak following an afternoon spent among cows. For Grandin, eating meat requires accepting where it comes from and what’s needed to put burger to bun.
Grandin has been studying animals since the 1970s, but her most famous work began in 1991, when the trade group for meat packers, the American Meat Institute (AMI), set its own guidelines for animal handling.
By the early 1990s, packers were under fire. Federal rules, penned in 1958 and broadened in 1978, set out how to treat animals in the slaughterhouse. Through the 1980s, gruesome details emerged about the industry’s treatment of animals. Besieged by animal rights activists and concerned about public fallout, the industry decided to fix things. They turned to Grandin.
She offered general recommendations, but few specific measures to improve animal conditions. Then in 1996, at the request of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Grandin began to audit processing plants, checking their compliance with both government and industry standards. She devised a scoring system with specific data points -- what percentage of animals are killed on the first attempt, how many cows are making noise in the pens, and so on -- that allowed her to grade plants.
The results were abysmal: Just a third of plants passed her requirements for stunning cattle, killing them with a single shot.
The system allowed any auditor to rank a facility by the numbers. A plant either passes or fails. To pass, at least 95 percent of animals must be stunned after a single shot from a bolt gun; no more than 3 percent of cattle should be vocalizing on their way to slaughter.
These privately conducted audits provide a clear approach to humane handling. By contrast, the USDA’s inspection system still has many gaps. A General Accounting Office report in January found many inspectors did not report violations of federal slaughter regulations, often because they were unsure of how to apply the law.
It is no surprise, then, that Grandin’s efforts caught the eye of some of the nation’s largest buyers of meat and poultry. In 1997, McDonald’s named her its key animal welfare adviser. Her next audits, in 1999 for McDonald’s, found remarkable improvement in the plants just three years after the USDA findings.
Progress continued. Last year’s audit found just three beef plants out of 50 with an unacceptable rate for stunning. “You can hold the plan to a very high standard,” she argues, “but it can never be perfect.”
From rating to redesigning
For Grandin, conditions can only be improved if you understand how cattle experience the slaughterhouse. When she visits a plant, she tries to experience it the way a cow would.
“You’ve got to get down there and see what the animal’s seeing, right at the animal’s level.”
And as she frequently explains, the fact she's autistic has given her a unique talent and zeal for the task. While most of us think in words, Grandin thinks in pictures. That visual cognition, she believes, allows her to interpret how cows and other animals see the world.
It led Grandin not only to audit facilities but to redesign them.During her audits, she found even most failing plants were 90 percent compliant -- but they never improved on the remaining 10 percent. So she acquired an intense, almost obsessive, focus on small details.
Many of her suggested changes are easy. Metal floor gratings can be embedded into concrete so cattle won’t slip. A hole cut through the front of restraining boxes allows a cow to peer out – and remain calm, so long as no one walks through its field of vision. Sometimes, a single light may need to be tweaked, eliminating shadows that can spook prey animals like cattle.
“She’ll be at Home Depot finding things that might be the $27 repair in the plant,” says AMI's Janet Riley. “She’s earned a lot of respect by being very practical in finding cost-effective solutions.”
Yet Grandin is stunningly thorough. Inside a plant, she carefully inspects the entire run of the cattle chute and slaughter pens. A plastic flap on the end of the chute can keep animals’ heads calmly down until the crucial point of stunning. She recommends center-line conveyors, with a scalloped track to transport animals comfortably on their stomachs. But it must have a false floor, so they believe they are just above the ground. Machines are fine, but not jerky, fast-moving parts – and for that matter, no jumpy employees.
Indeed, workers and their training are a huge challenge. So in articles and videos, she details every aspect of handling and slaughter.
She has even diagrammed proper moves for handlers: Walk opposite the cattle and outside their flight zone. Herding instincts urge them forward into the chutes. Move a herd leader and the rest will follow. Serpentine designs for chutes keep cows moving. “They want to see what’s around the corner,” says Warren Mirtsching, vice president for food safety and quality assurance at Swift & Company, one of the nation’s largest meat packers.
One of Grandin’s first projects, Swift’s plant in Greeley, Colo., serves as her showpiece and a laboratory of sorts. Transport trailers roll over Greeley’s rough asphalt roads, delivering 5,000 head of cattle each day into holding pens designed to Grandin’s standards.
When the processing line starts, handlers mill about the perimeter. After a moment, the animals plod up the curved chutes. Workers occasionally call out, rustle a plastic bag or gently nudge a cow with a long paddle. Mostly, they observe.
For Swift, as for most plants, following Grandin’s advice has not simply been about humane handling; it's also about business. Stressed cattle yield tougher meat. Relaxed animals are easier to handle and can be moved through the processing line more quickly. None of this is a secret: an otherwise brutally competitive packing industry openly shares handling techniques like those relentlessly drilled into Swift’s 2,600 workers in Greeley.
“Hopefully, they treat their kids the way they treat these animals,” Mirtsching says.
Having spent over a decade cleaning up slaughterhouses, Grandin has her sights on other aspects of meat and poultry, like sow stalls -- used to drastically confine pregnant pigs.
Her broadened interests largely mirror the food industry’s growing focus on animal handling. McDonald’s took the lead, but since 2001, Grandin has helped supermarkets and other chain restaurants develop humane standards and audits. Burger King and Wendy’s take part in beef and pork audits.
Though critics question whether voluntary efforts are strong enough, retailers point to Grandin and other experts as evidence the industry is serious about animal welfare. Supermarkets are keenly aware of the importance of humane handling.
“They knew it was a growing area of interest and concern on the part of their customers,” says Karen Brown of the Food Marketing Institute, a supermarket trade group.
When it comes to poultry, especially, Grandin sees room for improvement. Her new system for chicken audits has been in place since 2003, and KFC uses her to coordinate audits on all its suppliers. “We benchmarked others in the industry, then contacted the best possible professional,” said Jonathan Blum of Yum! Brands, parent of KFC.
Nationwide, Grandin estimates about a third of poultry suppliers use an audit program; many, she says, are failing.
In a poultry audit, she looks for signs that chickens’ rapid-growth breeding has pushed the limits of biology. Modern chickens are primarily bred for size, but their bodies can’t always keep up. Bones grow too fast; legs and wings are often damaged or deformed.
As with her early experiences at beef slaughterhouses, Grandin says inhumane practices have become a part of the poultry business. But unlike beef, the U.S. chicken industry has a few major producers controlling the entire process from hatchling to market. So Grandin wants farm audits as well, to ensure chickens are healthy long before slaughter.
“The chicken industry has some major issues now they’re going to have to face,” she says. “When they scream it’s going to double the price of the chickens … that’s b.s.”
Not to say she’s done with the beef industry. She wants feedlots designed with a 2 to 4 percent slope to provide adequate drainage, and wants vaccinations at least 45 days before calves are weaned and sold: “Worst thing you can do is put a bawling baby on a trailer. It’s just an awful thing to do.”
She wants audits like hers integrated into federal food safety and animal welfare systems, which are currently controlled by two different divisions of USDA. And she worries that industry practices, if left unchanged, become standard. “Bad becoming normal,” she says.
So while Grandin takes animal activists to tasks for ignoring the beef industry’s improvements, she plans to keep showing up at the slaughterhouse gate. “The plants have gotten it,” she says. “What we’ve got to do is maintain them. We can’t let up.”
© 2013 msnbc.com Reprints