A Behind The Scenes Look At the Beef Industry


In the past few months my husband has gone back to wearing Levi jeans and belts with bigger buckles.

It’s very attractive if you ask me.

But he’s not doing it to make me happy, he’s actually studying Agricultural Business at Cal Poly.

He’s now into his senior year and sprinting down the home stretch to degree-ville.  Woohoo!

It’s been really interesting hearing about all the things he’s been learning in his classes.  Sometimes he shares too much around the dinner table and I can’t finish eating my dinner, but for the most part, I’ve loved hearing about all the behind the scenes stuff.  Especially because over the past couple years we had watched a lot of those foodie/organic documentaries like Food Inc., Veducated, Forks Over Knives, TED Talks: Chew On This, Fat, Sick & Nearly Dead, and FoodMatters.  Some of the stuff we’ve learned through those documentaries has been great food for thought.  Other parts we’ve seen may be a bit misleading.

I remember sitting in the living room at my mom’s house during high school.  My sister and I were sitting on the floor, staring at the TV and in tears over the disgusting things being portrayed.  You probably know what kind of pro-vegetarian video I’m talking about.

It was repulsive.

However, through my husband’s education and his recent trip to an Oklahoma feed lot, I’ve been learning a lot about how slaughterhouses are actually run (and how some of the images from those videos have been distorted).  Money drives the beef industry.  Money drives the organic food industry.  I can’t speak for any animals other than beef and lambs right now because his classes haven’t covered pork or poultry yet, but what he has learned about the industry has been pleasantly surprising.

Did you know that an incredible autistic woman named Temple Grandin designed the slaughterhouses that process over 50% of the beef in this country?  There’s a great movie from 2011 starring Claire Danes called Temple Grandin.  I highly recommend it.  Most large slaughterhouses use her methods.  She designed these slaughterhouses to make the process of killing the cattle as humane, painless and stress-free as possible.


Because she said that cattle are here for us.  We raise them to eat them so we should treat them with respect.  “Nature may be cruel, but we don’t have to be,” Temple Grandin.

In her systems, the cattle don’t know what is happening to them so they remain calm all the way through the moment they are killed.

This is important for businesses because if cattle get spooked before they are killed, their adrenaline spikes and the meat becomes tough.  Tough meat can’t be sold for as much money as good, tender meat.  Also, if spoooked, the cattle might react and slam into the walls which leaves bruises.  All bruised meat must be cut off the cow and thrown away.  So beef companies make more money if the cattle is calm and stress-free up until the moment they are killed.  Therefore, I’m learning that the term “happy meat” might be more of a propogandus word than I previously thought.

It wasn’t always this way…throughout human history animals have been treated terribly.  Remember the book The Jungle?  This book, written in 1906, sparked public interest of humane treatment to animals in slaughterhouses.  But because of Temple Grandin, throughout the 80s and the 90s as her methods were put into practice, cattle have been treated more humanely than ever before.

Also, did you know that many of the regulations that slaughterhouses and feed lots have to adhere by are created by animal scientists who have the animal’s well-being as their top priority?

Further, the Humane Slaughter Act was passed in 1958 and has been revised many times ever since to ensure proper treatment of animals.

One of Temple Grandin’s largest contributions to the beef industry was her audit and management systems that ensure that the large plants are adhering to the regulations that go beyond even USDA regulations.  For the most part slaughterhouses are under video surveillance by auditors and have random auditor visits to check up on things.  Another thing you may not know: 100% of commercially slaughtered animals are inspected by full-time USDA inspectors, meaning that every single cow in this country is checked by a person for disease.  These USDA inspectors also check for any signs of ineffective or inhumane slaughter practices.  Remember, these USDA officials work for the government, not for the slaughterhouses, so every slaughterhouse has a third party present at all times of operation.

Up until 100 years ago, animals were routinely killed by having their necks slit while still alive.  Then the animal would bleed out.  In modern-day slaughterhouses, the animal is knocked out with a captive bolt (quick bolt to the brain) and rendered unconscious.  Then, the animal’s throat is slit and they bleed, while not feeling a thing.

Of course, this is not a peer-reviewed journal and I don’t have a lot of sources to cite for my research.  I’m simply sharing what my husband has shared with me around the dinner table.  He is learning this stuff from one of the most renowned Agricultural departments in the country and has spent time with people in various parts of the industry.

Another interesting fact: only beef that is labeled “grass-finished” has eaten a diet of only grass.  Beef labeled “organic,” “all-natural” or “grass-fed” still spends the last few months of their lives at feed lots eating corn.  “Regular beef” that doesn’t have a special label spends about twice as much time eating corn.

And my last fun fact: every single part of the cow gets utilized in large slaughterhouses except for the lungs and the fecal matter and partially digested food still inside the cow.

Anyway, this is a lot of information to throw at someone.  I don’t have some weird agenda in sharing this, but I wanted to share because based on a lot of the documentaries I’d watched I had begun viewing the beef industry as basically evil.  Maybe you’re in that same boat too.  Basically, the beef industry needs to hurry up and start informing the public about what is really going on behind the scenes because the vegetarians are beating them to it and so people are only hearing about one side.

In the past year I’ve gotten to know a lot more ‘aggies’ than ever before.  And the main thing I’ve noticed about all these people so far is a genuine interest and care for the animals.  I can’t speak for everyone, just for the people I’ve met.

Of course, every industry has room for improvement.  I’m sure over time, the meat processing industry will embrace new technologies and methods that will even further improve conditions for animals and procedures for processing meat.

So food for thought…

cal poly meat lab

Today I got to visit Jon’s meat lab with Cameron and my mother in law.  We came in late after the cow was already dead, but we got to see the process it goes through before ending up in those nicely packaged trays covered in plastic wrap at the grocery store.  (The Cal Poly meat processing plant is modeled after the large slaughterhouses).  It was amazing.  And weird.  But amazing.

I hope to have lots more info to share as my husband continues in his education and pursues a carrier in agriculture after graduating.



If you want to learn more about what I’m talking about, YouTube Temple Grandin beef.  


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