"The head must be dead," Grandin said, sounding a bit like Johnnie Cochran. "I can't stress that enough." Grandin wore a sky-blue shirt embroidered with mustangs that appeared to be running across her shoulders. Her silver belt buckle was emblazoned with a golden longhorn head. Grandin was the meat institute's headliner, an expert who has spent 25 years designing slaughter facilities.
"You've got to start with a calm animal and a fast knife," she told the audience in a session for beef producers. An animal must be thoroughly knocked out before butchering. Most slaughterhouses use what are called stun guns. The weapons either shoot a retractable rod into the brain of the animal or knock it rapidly with a metal stick, which is equivalent to being hit with a sledgehammer. Grandin cautions against wielding the gun against the back of the head, which can cause nothing more than paralysis and won't keep the animal from feeling pain as the butcher runs a knife across its throat.
Grandin said the goal was a "vocalization score" of 5 percent meaning no more than one in 20 animals should scream as it bleeds out. "The mistake people make is to squish them tighter when they struggle," she said. "This won't work."
Grandin's slide show revealed some worst-case scenarios, using photos from South America. In one image, a steer was strung up by its feet, its head bent backward, blood arching from its neck. Grandin explained that the bucking head was indicative of an animal that had not been properly stunned before butchering. Even worse, she said, was when an animal that's not entirely dead makes it to the scalder. "You gotta bleed 'em in 60 seconds or less."
Even in a town that owes its past to the meatpacking trade a city that has a steak named after it most folks don't want to know what happens to their strip before it hits the grill. But the meat institute conference had the honorable goal of educating ranchers, meatpackers, shippers and butchers on how to properly care for their animals. Representatives of all the major meat makers, such as Hormel and Oscar Mayer, were there to learn the newest techniques in leading livestock into slaughterhouses, knocking them out efficiently and ensuring that they can't feel anything when the end comes.
The result may be humane, but the point is economics.
Take, for instance, the discussion in the Sheraton's large conference room. There, University of Illinois researcher Matt Ritter tried to convince a couple of hundred pig farmers and pork producers that being nice to their animals will give them higher yields.
The number of pigs dying on the way to the slaughterhouse has nearly tripled in recent years, Ritter said. He and his colleagues at the university have studied livestock shipping exhaustively. In 2002, the university had pigs run six laps through handling pens identical to those that normally lead animals to slaughter, then subjected each pig to 30 hits from an electric cattle prod used to move stubborn animals. The researchers found that the pigs' blood contained high levels of lactate, a chemical that leads to fatigue. More recently, the university subjected 96 pigs to aggressive handling. Fatigued nearly to the point of death, the pigs survived only when they were separated.
If an animal dies on the truck, a packer must sell it as Grade B or lower. And lawmakers have considered prohibiting the sale of meat from animals that die on the way to packing facilities.
Ritter is now finishing a study on how much space pigs need in the double-decker trucks that take them to slaughter. He hopes the research will lead to new specifications on how many pigs should be transported in each truck. Truck drivers are paid by the pound, so they try to cram as many pigs as they can into the trailers, Ritter said. Trucks made for 159 pigs often run with about 175. Ritter cautioned that the university has yet to draw a conclusion on whether that's bad. "Packing them in there may be a good thing in the winter," he noted.
Back downstairs, Grandin wrapped up her speech before the beef producers. She scrambled to answer a few questions on bleed-out times and the best ways to stun animals, then rushed to her next speech. On the escalator up, Grandin was astonished that anyone from the press was covering the conference. "I didn't know reporters were allowed in," she said. "The layman, this isn't something for laymen. This is something for the industry. But I find most people accept it once you find out how it works."
As Grandin rushed off, one of her former students debated some of the finer points of the speech with a university professor. Jennifer Lanier grew up on a cattle ranch in Hawaii. She earned a doctorate in animal science from Colorado State University, then switched sides. She now works for the Humane Society.
Most animal-rights groups are not allowed at the annual conference. Some have protested outside in past years. But Lanier was allowed in because she has a farming background. She said most animal-rights types wouldn't be able to take the gruesome photos and descriptions at the conference. But she understands that meat producers are trying to make things more humane. She says it's part of the process that some animals will suffer; the point is to reduce that number. "You own a dog?" she asks. "You teach that dog commands? Can you get that dog to do that command 100 percent of the time? It's the same in this industry. You teach the right things to do and hope that it happens every time." Slaughterhouse expert Temple Grandin has some advice for killin'.