Temple Grandin doesn't like the phrase "harvest plant."
It is a livestock-industry euphemism for a slaughter floor, where animals are killed for food.
"I think that's absolute B.S.," said Grandin, who has redesigned livestock handling facilities. "That's the kind of stuff that the P.R. people make up, and I'm just not gonna do that. That's just ridiculous. I'm gonna use the S-word."
The S word is "slaughter"—the topic and process on which Grandin has spent her career—but it could have been "straight talk," because that's what Grandin gave in her keynote speech during a nose-to-tail pork dinner here Monday night. It was the first of her three talks at the Carolina Meat Conference, a gathering of farmers, butchers, chefs, retailers and other meat-industry people sponsored by NC Choices, a project of the Center for Environmental Farming Systems.
Grandin, who has been called the world's most famous autistic person, didn't mention autism during her 30-minute presentation. Nor did she discuss her belief that the condition has enabled her to better understand animals, a claim that has struck some animal rights activists as self-aggrandizing at worst and unsubstantiated at best.
There are also people for whom the phrase "humane slaughter" is an oxymoron, but humane slaughter was very much on the minds of the 380 conference attendees who attended sessions devoted to topics such as animal welfare and sustainability. And for them, Grandin is a reliable source of knowledge, said Barrett Twitty, the owner of Custom Quality Packers in Sims, N.C. His company slaughters an average of 1,000 pigs a week, mostly for the whole-hog barbecue market. At age 30, he estimates that he's the youngest slaughterhouse owner in the state, and admitted he had a lot to learn after buying the business a few years ago. "She is the one and only when it comes to animal welfare and livestock handling," he said. "There really is no one else to turn to."
During her speech, Grandin mentioned the award-winning 2010 HBO movie about her life, mostly to cite Hollywood folks as another of the various groups she talks to during months of travel every year. Calling it "kind of a weird situation," one day she's signing books and the next she's training animal welfare auditors. One day she's bringing McDonald's executives to a farm and slaughterhouse, the next day she's teaching classes at Colorado State University, where she is a professor. Everywhere she goes, she hears both good and bad about our relationship to the meat we eat.
The bad: A 2012 U.K. study, she said, reported that half of its respondents couldn't connect bacon with pigs. Twelve percent thought beef was made from grain. "Not fed grain, made out of grain," she said — and children who think eggs grow in the ground or on trees.
The good: Industry giant Smithfield Foods decided to phase out sow gestation crates in its slaughterhouses.
"For a while," she said, "the big plants were actually better than the small plants. I'm finding some of the problems in the small plants are simply lack of knowledge."
Grandin's view of the huge, national meat industry and the small, local one is why NC Choices sought her as a speaker, said Casey McKissick, the organization's coordinator.
"Temple brings a national and global perspective to animal welfare that these farmers don't see on a day-to-day basis," he said. "These farmers have been serving a market-driven need: consumers wanting a product that they feel like is as transparent as possible. They've got a connection with the farmer. I think we're seeing some of the bigger meat companies going for that same type of transparency, that same type of story. They're either seeing the success of the small farmer doing it, or they're coming to realize that the consumer wants to know."
Whether it's the shopper who wants to know where the meat came from, or the pig farmer who wants to know exactly how long to hold the stunner to the back of the pig's head (three seconds, Grandin said, "don't let the wand slide around"), Grandin promotes straight talk. Straight talk prevents a disconnect between the stunner and a sausage biscuit.
"It was very interesting, working with McDonald's, Wendy's and other companies, and watching animal welfare issues go from an abstraction … to being something real," Grandin said. "And it became real when they went on their first trips to farms and slaughter plants. And I took people out on these trips. The thing is, the truth is somewhere in the middle. It's not the horror show that they show on those worst videos on the Internet, and it's not the garden of roses that the ag industry says it is. It's somewhere in the middle."