What’s in a Name: Temple Grandin and the Ethics of Certifiable Meat

October 15, 2010

by Heather Smith
This article originally appeared in
Meatpaper Issue Nine.

THE APPROPRIATE WAY TO KILL AN ANIMAL IS to first bind its limbs, and second, pull the heart out of its chest. So says the Yassa, the code of law devised by Genghis Kahn. The appropriate way to kill a mouse for a taxidermy project is to use CO2, according to a lively forum on the Web site (“It is very cheap. You can shake up a can of Coke, crack it, let the CO2 into a bag, pop a mouse into the bag, seal it back up, and Voila: Refreshments and mice to skin.”). The American Veterinary Society has an impressively comprehensive list of appropriate ways to kill animals ranging from zoo animals to hamsters, delivered in such detail that they seem to find it necessary to preface the document with a disclaimer that the information inside should not be used to kill humans.

The appropriate way to kill a pig is via an electrical stunner or a captive bolt gun. Carbon dioxide is only appropriate for breeds that don’t have a reputation for being “nervous.” (Pigs bred for lower fat content tend to be high-strung.) More critical than tools are people: A slaughterhouse should be managed by a person who sincerely cares about his or her job — otherwise the stunner and the gun won’t be well maintained, the slaughterhouse won’t be kept in good working order, and the kill floor workers will inevitably care less and less about doing their job well. So says Temple Grandin, the American authority on all things slaughter.

Of all the figureheads in the pantheon of contemporary American food culture, Temple Grandin has had one of the oddest trajectories to fame. Fifteen years ago she was a respected slaughterhouse consultant, which is another way to say that hardly anyone knew about her unless they had a kill floor that needed improving.

Then Oliver Sacks, the neurologist and New Yorker writer, wrote an essay about her. Grandin was the kind of character that was stranger than fiction — an autistic woman who claimed that autism gave her a particular insight into animal behavior, who openly wished that the human race had never evolved to eat animals, but who, out of pragmatism, chose to use her understanding of animals to help slaughterhouses kill them more quickly and effectively.

Of all the figureheads in the pantheon of contemporary American food culture, Temple Grandin has had one of the oddest trajectories to fame.

Human culture clearly baffles her. “A mentally retarded child and a cow may have the same cognitive abilities,” she wrote in 2002. “I can sell or kill the cow but I am not allowed to do this with a retarded child. Why should the retarded child or human newborn have more protection than a cow? One reason is that the child is our own species and we protect our own species. Even lions do not usually dine on lion for dinner.”

The conviction that one has special insight into what animals are thinking is not a particularly autistic trait. This world is full of people who are convinced that they know what their cat is thinking. Autism researcher Simon Baron-Cohen believes that Grandin’s expertise is too often viewed as a quirky, Rain Man–like talent rather than the product of a lifetime of research. But the story that Sacks spun around Grandin, and the intense cultural fascination with autism that began in the mid-’90s, made her into a totemic figure — an oracle who, by virtue of her understanding of animals, and pragmatism regarding humanity’s treatment of them, seemed to provide a certain absolution.

Sacks took the title of his book, An Anthropologist on Mars, from a phrase Grandin used to describe how she felt about her interactions with the rest of humanity. What does she think now that the Martians have gone and appointed her, the anthropologist, their animal queen? She is perhaps the only slaughterhouse consultant in the history of NPR to be asked for pet advice. (“NEVER tickle a pet,” Grandin told Terri Gross, firmly.)

And now Grandin is also a name on a meat label. It’s a nice meat label, as meat labels go. It shows a cow and a pig and a sheep all nestled together. An old-timey windmill squats daintily in the background. “Certified by Dr. Temple Grandin,” it reads. “Sustainable and Humane.” An accompanying press release states that the company’s slaughter standards were developed by Niman Ranch and Grandin. It also points out that while  meat labels with buzzwords like “fair trade” or “animal welfare” or “shade-grown” are common in the food industry, a label with a single person’s name on it is very unusual.

It’s a bit peculiar that the label was co-developed by the name-challenged Niman Ranch — a once-pioneering meat company that retains the name of its founder but not the actual person. Bill Niman once sold to Chez Panisse, and spearheaded the marketing of hormone- and antibiotic-free meat. Now Bill Niman raises and sells livestock under the name BN Ranch. He’s not allowed to sell meat under his full name — when he left the company in 2007, his name stayed behind.

In recent years, Bill Niman has called out Niman Ranch for doing things contrary to the company’s original mandate. Cattle are now raised in commercial feedlots. Antibiotics are still not fed to healthy livestock, but antimicrobials (which fall outside of the USDA’s description of antibiotics) are. The ranch named after Niman responds with the argument that (a) all of the above are widely practiced and (b) the company is making money, a different state of affairs from when both Bill Niman and his name were on the premises.

Not much has changed except for the addition of Grandin’s name, says Paul Willis, head of Niman Ranch’s pig division. When asked about Niman and the accusation of standards compromise, Willis mentions, quite graciously, that Iowa ranks 50th in the nation in terms of water quality because of industrial hog farms with far looser standards than Niman’s, and that he could see two of them from where he was standing.

Everyone is trying to come up with the right way to kill an animal, and then eat it, and still make money at it.

And now Niman Ranch also has Grandin’s name. Or rather: sort of. A few days after Niman Ranch issued a press release announcing its collaboration with Grandin, she issued a clarification. She was not approving of the standards themselves, she wrote. She went on to describe many of Niman Ranch’s standards (no antibiotics for healthy animals, no keeping animals without access to pasture) as “niche” standards. Grandin was, she said, approving not of the code, but merely of the clarity with which it was written. It was a statement mystifying in its narrowness. Surely Grandin, the anthropologist, after years of studying us, the Martians, would realize that we would see a label like “Certified: Sustainable and Humane” and think of pigs gamboling in a pasture, rather than standards approved for legal clarity, rather than ethical content.

There are so many codes for the right and wrong way of doing things — and so many of them dependent on the name of the person associated with the code. Bill Niman is trying to police the use of his former code from afar. Niman Ranch needs a new name to attach to its code, because the old name is out there making trouble. Everyone is trying to come up with the right way to kill an animal, and then eat it, and still make money at it.

(Everyone but Genghis Kahn, that is. His way sounds labor-intensive and more than a bit impractical.)

A friend of mine stopped eating meat when she returned from living in the countryside because she couldn’t imagine eating meat again that wasn’t purchased from someone who was fully known to her community. In urban areas, people like Grandin and Niman have become semaphore for that knowledge. Is there a code that can replace the trust that we place upon individual people, sometimes heedlessly?
I am unsure.

HEATHER SMITH is an editor at Meatpaper.

This article originally appeared in Meatpaper Issue Nine.




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