If slaughter houses had glass walls… (Video)

slaughter house beef pork AMI temple grandin meat transparency
Pork Carcasses in a local slaughter house. Image via Smith Farms.

In the debate over transparency in our food systems and recent ‘ag gag’ bills/laws across the country, there has been a lot of fuss about slaughterhouses and the consumers’ ability to visualize what happens during livestock slaughter. 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.

In this country we are very desensitized to acts of death and violence, so simply opening up the slaughterhouse images can stir quite the negative response. A good example of this comes from Megan Brown sharing her custom exempt 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 business) for being transparent and explaining how her animals were harvested.

Forrest Pritchard, local farmer in the D.C. area, has also done a great job with transparency, 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, here is my review of Forrest’s new book, Gaining Ground, released May 2013. I promise it’s well worth the read.)

There are several farm-to-fork, local food producers across the country that do a great job of connecting with their customers and answering their questions. However, not all of these messages cast commodity, or larger-scale agriculture in a positive light. Frankly, those larger-scale food producers have not done a good job at transparency. Or at least there is room for improvement.

As the author of the NYT Opinion piece suggests, increasing visibility in slaughterhouses would be a good thing, but there’s a problem with that. As we are so far removed from the reality and graphic nature of the process of death, imagery of animal slaughter comes as a shock to those who do not know what is occurring. Shoot those images straight out over the waves and of course it is a gruesome scene.

I haven’t been to a large number of slaughter houses, but the visits I have taken have been very educational. It’s amazing the massive amount of steps taken to ensure fair handling of the animals prior to, during, and after the harvest process. Food safety is a major concern for all of these processors. I’ve visited large processors like Tyson and JBS along with small regional processors. All my beef and pork as a youth was harvested at our local slaughterhouse. In college, I had the opportunity to take courses where we went through the entire process of harvesting the animal and processing the meat.

There’s a saying passed around 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 hasn’t turned me away from meat consumption.

The American Meat Institute and 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 on how animals are handled prior to and during the slaughter process. AMI and Grandin have teamed together for a few videos that walk us through the slaughter plants for beef and pork. Dr. Grandin chose plants that represent the industry and explain what is occurring and why it is done that way.

Last August, AMI released a video walking viewers through a beef plant as Dr. Grandin explains what is occurring.

Part Two of the Glass Walls project was released this month by AMI. In the second video, Dr. Grandin walks viewers through the process of getting pigs to slaughter and the steps involved in the process.

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 slaughter houses, and I don’t expect these videos to make people remove their distrust of meat industries, but opportunities to learn from a distance are extremely important. I do hope folks will receive them as a move toward better transparency.

Do you appreciate efforts like this from the meat industries to share more information about how animals are handled and slaughtered?


  1. Ryan, I walk the halls of the Richmond legislature, with a small photo album quick flip book of my farm, my freezer ( 3+K worth of beef) and photos of my small local slaughterhouse/butcher shop. I push state control of slaughter houses for local economies. I think folks are OK with seeing it, and when it is a job for a local family, as opposed to a strickly mechanical operation, they see the value and understand the importance of the visual imagery. Glass walls are a good thing for slaughter houses.

  2. I personally would rather know than not know. I know it’s not pretty, but necessary. I would also like people who think that hunting is “wrong” or “inhumane” to see what goes on in a slaughter house, as well as the folks who think that grocery stores magically manifest produce and meat without “harvesting.”

  3. YES. I am 100% all for this. It is necessary in our society. This could considered an aid in public heath- if citizens better understand understand how the food is made, and possible contamination points, it could lead to a greater understanding of overall meat safety. As Americans we have a strong tendency to hide the more grim realities of life. I believe it will lead to greater accountability on both the citizen and the packer front- the citizen to be responsible and safe in their in-home meat handling, and the packer to keep up with the AMI audit. The effect of the Oprah Effect cannot be forgotten, as well as our duties to these precious animals that feed us.

  4. My husband and I visit a pork slaughter house every year to help process pigs from the Keystone International Livestock Show in Pennsylvania. It is an educational experience that allows me to speak intelligently on how animal are treated in the slaughter process. It also gives me assurance in how our food is made and what precautions are taken to insure food safety. Every farmer should know the entire processing chain for their livestock and be able to educate the public on how safe and humane our food supply is. It is our job as ambassadors to the general public from the agriculture industry to be able to educate and enlighten people that our animals are cared for with the utmost respect from the time they enter this world until the time they leave.

  5. I took the time to watch both videos and I am very impressed with the amount of detail that Dr. Grandin was able to get into the 15 or so minutes of each video. They were very informational. Of course there will still be those that don’t quite get the point that you are trying to get across here, mainly because they don’t follow your blog or they are just looking to argue. I happened to read the onslaught of comments on your “Ag Gag” blog a few weeks ago and I was amazed at how some thought that it was their right to secretly tape and edit the footage before “exposing” what they perceived as the “horrors” of food production. I commend you for not falling for their trickery and standing your ground and doing so with integrity. Good Job!

  6. Its interesting that many articles assume that people are dumb, numb, and naïve to where their foods are processed. The fact that there have been many television shows on how meats are raised/slaughtered/and make it to the table have aired since the 70’s, what’s amazing is that over the past decade the slaughter industry was challenged by the public for its improper handing of the animals and then they basically closed the “glass walls”, see the thing is the customers are NOT stupid, but to assume the public has no working knowledge is ridiculously over stated. In fact, there are people are not aware of all the details, but we ranch, farm, and raise horses and we have the most knowledgable city folks who have more of a working knowledge of anyone on how the meats are raised, carved, and prepped for them. What is astonishing is how quickly the issues within the plants themselves brought to the public by NBC, CBS news casts in the past decade exposing many things including the illnesses in the meats brought to their attention by the USDA the slaughterhouses took a defensive approach, which then alerted the activists and then launched the program to find out what goes on behind closed doors. In an age where the industry is attempting to open a small door and let people catch a positive glimpse remember its the same industry that got upset when it allowed people to exhibit bad behavior in how they managed animals for slaughter. The USDA and the News Sources and the Activists have illuminated the industry, the industry is the one who recoiled and closed their doors, and the recent Ag-Gag bill craze just makes the public more suspicious of the goings on. On the Drovers Network they have had several articles on how people are wanting more information on their food sources. I can agree, they do, I do, but when you have transparency its for the good and the bad you don’t get a choice when to say its ok to have transparency and when not. Its either all through the industry and be very up-front. However, we all know how that went the opposite direction 10 years ago. While I commend a small facility for showing a glimpse of the goings on-its still not transparency, transparency is when anyone, anytime can view or gain information, random spot checks from other than Federal or State Inspectors are the only way to give transparency, thanks for propping the door open for 10 minutes of transparency, its the rest of the 364 days, 23 hours, and 50 minutes we are concerned with thank you!

  7. Part of our struggle in production agriculture is “terminology”. Some common terms for converting animals into food have been slaughter house, packing houses, butcher shops, meat markets, etc. We have never slaughtered, packed, butchered corn, soybeans, wheat, or milo. We have “harvested” the plant versions of production agriculture. And the parallel to the animal component of production agriculture is the same…harvesting. We could continue to make strides in expressing out production agriculture efforts if we could define ourselves in terms of harvesting v. slaughtering, butchering, packing. The inflammatory versions of these words are the cornerstone for our animal activist brothers and sisters. I think animal activists would be impressed with the modernization of our harvesting and processing facilities. The automation and quality control practices in place and the new technology being designed are beyond impressive. We need to continue our efforts to provide the safest food sources to the world. Great article.

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