Dinner with Temple Grandin

The autism advocate and animal welfare expert talks about her decades of work with Cargill and what’s next in the animal protein industry.

By Carl Peterson June 30, 2014

When you’re having a conversation with Temple Grandin, you won’t have trouble discerning her opinion on a subject.

Her passion is self-evident, and she joins into discussion with a direct, head-on approach, often answering your question before you’ve had time to finish it. She doesn’t shy away from stating things bluntly, even when the topic is controversial.

The autism advocate, animal welfare expert, renowned author and professor at Colorado State University recently joined Cargill Senior Vice President Bill Buckner and a few other Cargill employees for a dinner of Cargill steaks at a restaurant in downtown Minneapolis. Her friendship with the company and with Bill spans more than three decades, and he would introduce her later that night as she gave a speech at an event hosted by the Autism Society of Minnesota (AuSM).

At dinner, with her signature red scarf tucked into her black cowgirl shirt while she eats a pepper-crusted sirloin steak, she engages with the others around the table, shifting from topic to topic and expounding her views as she goes.

A 30-year dialogue

Although she’s in town for her AuSM speech, the conversation at dinner quickly turns to current issues in animal welfare.

“We’ve gotta get rid of gestation stalls,” she says, referring to the individual boxes that house sows in the pork industry. Public opinion is strongly against this practice, she says, and she too favors a move toward group sow housing. (Cargill announced earlier this month that it would phase out gestation stalls over the next few years.)

What exactly group housing for sows should look like, she isn’t sure yet. She’s open to different possibilities, but hasn’t gone so far as to do any of the drawings for layout and design that made her famous in the meat industry decades ago and established her credentials as an animal welfare expert.

She and Bill get in a discussion about Zilmax, the growth promotant that was voluntarily removed from the North American market by Merck Animal Health last year after several producers reported disturbing incidents involving lameness and worse from cattle treated with Zilmax.

Although Cargill didn’t observe these problems at the facilities where it receives Zilmax-treated cattle, the company supported Merck’s decision to pull the product. Cargill was the last major producer to accept Zilmax in its supply chain a few years ago, only doing so after exhaustive research to establish best practices for using the product.

Last year, Temple expressed very vocal concerns about Zilmax at a National Cattleman’s Beef Association meeting where the problems surfaced, and she remains worried that without the right protocols, stiffness, lameness and other problems might represent a case of “bad becoming the new normal” in the industry.

She was asked to join Merck’s advisory committee to review Zilmax, but is only “half” on the committee “because I wouldn’t sign their confidentiality agreement!” she said.

Eager to find out her latest thinking, Bill asks her what recent academic papers about cattle lameness have caught her eye, and whose work currently has the most credibility in university circles. As she methodically lists the articles and authors, he listens and asks more questions. It’s easy to see this isn’t the first time they’ve had a conversation along these lines.

“I met Temple at a large meat industry conference in Chicago several decades ago. Neither of us really felt we fit in among all these older guys in dark suits, so we sat at the same table and started talking. We got in a deep discussion about cattle and animal handling that made a strong impression on me,” Bill said later. “I’ve enjoyed discussing these issues with her ever since.”

At the AuSM event later that night, in front of an audience of about 600 people, she describes this period of her career by saying, “People didn’t want to talk to me. They thought I was super weird. And then I’d whip out my drawings!”

‘Constant vigilance’

Some years after they met, Bill hired Temple to put those drawings to work in designing the animal handling areas for Cargill’s new Canadian beef processing facility in High River, Alberta, which opened just over 25 years ago.

Two years later, Temple helped install the first center-track restrainer system at the Cargill Beef plant in Schuyler, Neb.

“The slaughter plants have gotten up to a pretty good level,” she says, contrasting the present era with the “bad old days” of the 1970s and 1980s.

In many cases, making improvements at plants across the industry was a matter of simple fixes like installing non-slip flooring in cattle chutes, moving lights to get rid of reflections that spook cattle, and changing air flows to calm them. In coming up with these types of fixes, as well as her innovative plant designs, Temple credits her autism, her mind’s ability to “see in pictures,” as giving her an unparalleled view into the mind of animals like beef cattle. This mental process of hers was visualized in the award-winning HBO docu-drama about her life, where she was portrayed with uncanny accuracy by actress Claire Danes.

“Some of these plants are getting up pretty close to about as good as they’re going to get. It gets to where you have to maintain it. It takes constant vigilance to keep things good,” Temple says at dinner.

She dives with gusto into a debate about the merits of a four-point scoring system for cattle lameness versus a three-point system; whether as an industry our focus on breeding animals for production is costing us in other areas like disease resistance (“We’ve gotta start looking at what’s optimal, instead of what’s maximal”); and even the problems in the U.S. education system that set up hurdles for children with autism.

As we finish our dinner and get ready to move on to the rest of the evening, it’s apparent that this passion of hers is why Bill and others in Cargill have found her to be such an enlightening and refreshing voice in the industry, and why millions of people affected by autism have drawn inspiration from her.

In his introduction for her that night, Bill sums it up by saying, “To me, autism gave her a vision, and she gave it a voice.”