In August, Central Valley Meats was the focus of an undercover activist video that was focused on the handling and stunning of mature cattle. The common response for many as they read the headlines was, “Here we go again.”

Can you blame them for feeling a bit of déjà vu? After all, a similar video was released just four years ago targeting Westland-Hallmark Packing for animal-handling issues. In the time that elapsed between Westland Hallmark and Central Valley, significant changes have occurred in the arena of accountability and transparency for the meat industry.

The move toward transparency has been significant. Four years ago, it was highly unlikely that a day-time talk show would have been allowed through the doors of a slaughter facility.

However, in February 2011, reporter Lisa Ling was granted access to Cargill’s Fort Morgan, Colo., beef slaughter facility for the filming of “Inside a Slaughterhouse” for the Oprah Winfrey Show. If you haven’t seen the video, take a look:

In early September 2012, the American Meat Institute posted a video of slaughter operations at a North American beef slaughter facility. It can be found at the following web link:

The narrator for the video was Dr. Temple Grandin, who has been a very visible and respected expert on humane slaughter. The video is very clear in its depiction of day-to-day handling, stunning and slaughter operations. It was obvious that the facility that granted the video tour was well-managed and took humane handling seriously.

This serves as evidence of the importance of doing things the right way. Many have heard the mantra, “People need to see where their food comes from.” If we think about the experience that the first-time viewer of the slaughter process might have, it becomes easy to realize the importance of making sure that the processes that are observed are being performed effectively and to a high standard.

The video produced by the AMI is a great example of how such a video should be produced. Janet Riley, AMI’s senior vice president of Public Affairs and Professional Development, wrote a blog about the video after it was released where she stated, “Yes, this video is graphic, but it is honest.”

There is significant value in honesty.

When I started teaching Animal Welfare at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls a couple years ago, one of my goals was to give my students as clear and unbiased view of animal production as possible. If they were going to learn to assess animal welfare in an objective manner, they needed to have the ability to take an objective view of the animals’ environment. One of my objectives was to show them the humane slaughter process as closely and with as much detail as possible.

One of my consulting clients had offered to contribute to my classes in the past, so I decided it was time to take them up on the offer. I asked them for a full day of CCTV video of their lairage and stunning operations and lead my students on a video tour of the facility. This tour started at the time the trailer door opened and continued until the calves moved to the legging stand after bleed out.

Of course, I have been very protective of the videos because it takes an admirable amount of trust for a slaughter facility to send video of stunning procedures to a university with the intent of showing it to a group of 80 students of various majors!

The morning I was to give my first lecture on humane slaughter and provide the video tour, I thought the endpoint would either be at best, very good, or at worst, I would be looking for a new place to work!

I was surprised to see the reactions of the students during the tour. They were all very attentive during the observation of unloading and lairage. Before showing restraint and stunning, I clearly described what they would see and stopped the video to warn them before the stun occurred. On the first stun, approximately 30% of the students in the class have looked away in the three semesters I have shown these videos.

After the first stun, I ask the audience if the event they observed was congruent with what they expected. The answer, in most cases, is an emphatic “No!”

When they are asked how the stun they viewed differed from their expectations, two responses are typically given: “It was much faster than I expected,” and “I expected to see more blood.”

Think about this: These responses underscore the views of much of our society regarding slaughter. The images that come to mind for many are similar to scenes from horror films. They are surprised to find that the conditions in the slaughter facility differ from their expectations.

As I continue with the video tour, I play additional stuns for the students to observe at their requests, each time stopping the video and allowing any students that do not want to watch to look away. After the stun, the video is stopped, and I ask the class to evaluate the signs of insensibility that they can from the video. This helps to focus their attention on the individual animal, which is an important skill to develop in animal-welfare assessment.

On the second viewing, it is rare to find a student in the class that continues to look away. In fact, the class typically asks to view more stuns because the process is so novel to them. The students are allowed to view the videos outside of class by appointment, and every semester there are interested students that take advantage of the opportunity.

There are a few important lessons I have learned since the addition of CCTV tours to my animal-welfare class that can be extended to form a model for interaction with people who are interested in animal handling and stunning practices at commercial slaughter facilities.

First, and probably most important, the viewer must feel that they are not being deprived of the ability to see the things that they want to see. This requires major attention to doing things the right way on the part of the plant, because the only way to meet this objective is to be transparent.

Next, potentially overwhelming processes need to be described and explained before the video is shown or the tour is taken out to the stunning operation. This gives the audience the opportunity to prepare for understanding what they will see.

Finally, the audience must have an opportunity to ask questions to help understand what they have seen.

Overall, the formula for success in showing potentially inflammatory procedures such as stunning boils down to three parts: doing things the right way, communicating clearly with the first-time viewer, and taking the time to explain the process and answer questions.

Transparency is important. Taking the time to explain is vital.