When one of the nation’s largest meatpackers opened its beef slaughter plant to a camera crew from The Oprah Winfrey Show, few were predicting the company would earn a pat on the back from a leading food system critic and positive words from Winfrey herself.
The Feb 1. episode of the afternoon talk show, which reaches millions of viewers, documented Oprah Winfrey’s challenge to her staff to adopt a vegan diet (no animal products) for a week.
Also on the show was Michael Pollan, who is regarded as one of the most influential critics of what he describes as industrial meat production, and Kathy Freston, a vegan author.
That was the context in which Cargill Meat Solutions allowed a reporter and a camera crew to tour a plant that processes 4,500 cattle a day. Cargill allowed every stage of the process to be filmed, except for the actual stunning of the cattle, which the reporter witnessed and described to viewers.
Winfrey said 20 other facilities had denied the show’s request to film the slaughter process, highlighting the risk taken by Cargill.
However, Cargill may have taken a lesson from the recent documentary Food, Inc., which ominously warned “the (food) industry doesn’t want you to know how your food is produced, because if you knew you might not want to eat it.” During the filming of the movie, many food businesses declined requests for interviews, apparently concerned they wouldn’t be treated fairly. Food, Inc. went on to receive critical-acclaim and reinforced beliefs that the food industry was hiding a dark side.
Cargill’s participation in the Oprah show cast doubt on at least some of those accusations.
The show’s reporter appeared squeamish through much of her slaughterhouse tour but at times was fascinated, telling her cameraman “you’ve got to get this” as they passed a worker operating the large saw used to split the beef carcasses.
She also questioned plant manager Nicole Johnson-Hoffman about claims made by animal rights activists that the slaughter process is inhumane.
“I would not ridicule people who believe that you shouldn’t eat animals, but I would say that we are committed to doing it right. And I believe that when animals are handled with dignity and harvested carefully, that’s the natural order of things,” Johnson-Hoffman replied.
After the tour, Winfrey noted that her reporter hadn’t given up meat, but had a new appreciation of where it came from. And while guest Michael Pollan didn’t warm up to conventional beef production, he applauded Cargill for opening its doors and later told viewers “there’s nothing evil about meat.” When another guest promoted veganism as a way to prevent animal suffering, Winfrey jumped in saying “but they don’t make them suffer,” referring to the slaughter process the audience had just witnessed.
One food blogger later wrote, “I have to say my mouth was on the floor when they skinned and cut down the (cattle) carcass, but honestly, I was surprised at how calm the cows were.”
An L.A. Times reporter reviewed the show noting that animal rights activists “didn’t appreciate the tone of the segment on animal slaughter.”
David White, OFBF’s senior director of issues management, said Cargill deserves credit for its willingness to be transparent.
“You look at the potential risk that Cargill had on its hands, but I think Cargill got a win for Cargill. And Cargill got a win for American farmers, particularly those involved in livestock production,” he said.
A couple of months prior to the Oprah show, Cargill had opened another slaughter facility to dietician and Food Network personality Ellie Krieger. In a column on the Huffington Post, Krieger said she was pleasantly surprised at the care given to the animals and the attention to food safety.
“I guess the truest way to explain how I feel about the way beef is produced after all I saw that busy day is to tell you that for dinner that night I thoroughly enjoyed a nice piece of beef tenderloin,” she wrote.