The Big Picture: Oprah tours a slaughterhouse

Cargill opens their doors to one of north america’s most influential women

with millions of viewers, there is no doubt that the Oprah Winfrey Show has the power to change the habits of Americans en mass. It’s this influence that had agricultural advocates and activists alike on pins and needles in February. The show aired rare footage from a tour of a Cargill slaughtering facility to accompany a show on eating a vegan diet – an extreme form of vegetarianism where no animal products are consumed including milk, eggs and cheese. For the show, 378 of Oprah’s staff took on her challenge to be vegan for one week.

a rare look inside
As many choose a vegan lifestyle because of animal welfare concerns, Oprah sent investigative reporter, Lisa Ling inside a Cargill slaughtering facility to better understand how animals are treated in the slaughter process. Many in the world of farm public relations were sitting on the edge of their seat as they expected a biased and blemished report on a necessary step in the food chain. Fortunately, many breathed a sigh of relief as Ling showcased Cargill’s efforts to keep animals comfortable and calm leading up to slaughter. Although the images were probably disturbing to many, the General Manager of the facility, Nicole Johnson-Hoffman, explained how each step in the process was carefully designed with the dignity of the animals in mind.

Before the tour began, Ling commented that she has always been “unabashed” about the fact that she eats meat. After  the tour, she asserted that she will continue to eat meat but will have a greater appreciation for where it comes from.

Johnson-Hoffman emphasized that Cargill was committed to animal well-being: “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.”

Allowing such a tour was a brave decision for Cargill as it could have had disastrous effects. Though many who saw the footage are undoubtedly unsettled by it, it is this type of open, honest communication that many consumers are looking for. By carefully explaining the steps taken to care for the animals, Cargill effectively lifted a veil of uncertainty and fear from many consumers about where their meat comes from. People may not ever want to see inside a slaughterhouse again, but at least it’s no longer a mystery in which they are forced to use their imaginations.

vegan for a week
The larger challenge that this tour was centered around ended with interesting results. After the week-long vegan experiment, many of Oprah’s staff admitted to cheating and sneaking milk and eggs at breakfast. Others stayed committed but already had elaborate plans for their first post-challenge meal featuring ribs and cheese. Some enjoyed the challenge and are planning to make adjustments to their diet long-term. Almost everyone agreed that the challenge made them be more conscious of what they ate – thinking about where it comes from and how it’s grown.

This type of food awareness shouldn’t be feared. As people become increasingly more interested in where their food comes from, farmers and food producers have an opportunity to have an open and honest conversation about what they do. •