Letter to the Editor
Jun 2023

Healthy Conversation About Meat?

Jessica Pierce, PhD, Marc Bekoff, PhD, Hope Ferdowsian, MD, MPH, Barbara J. King, PhD, and L. Syd M. Johnson, PhD
AMA J Ethics. 2023;25(6):E461-463. doi: 10.1001/amajethics.2023.461.


We write in response to the journal’s inclusion of Temple Grandin’s “Answers to Patient, Student, and Clinician Questions About How Animals Are Slaughtered and Used for Food” in the April 2023 issue.

Grandin claims that, because cortisol levels in cattle are the same on a ranch and in a slaughterhouse, the animals are not stressed. This is not an evidence-based assertion. Cortisol levels are considered a rough and misleading measure of stress,1,2 and “at a ranch” could refer to any number of possible environmental conditions.

Moreover, Grandin says that because cattle walking up a chute to be slaughtered behave in the same way as cattle walking up a chute to be vaccinated, animals in a slaughterhouse aren’t aware they are going to die—which could be taken as ethical support for killing them. The scientific inference is mistaken, as is the moral logic. Her discussion of carbon dioxide stunning methods is equally unsettling, as if deceiving animals about what’s happening to them (moving pigs with their group so that they feel “calm and excellent”) makes that practice ethically acceptable. It is now widely acknowledged that human and animal behavior vary considerably in response to stress and trauma.3 It is also widely acknowledged that animals have an interest in their own lives, seeking not merely the absence of pain and distress but also opportunities to flourish.4,5

Grandin claims that grazing cattle “can improve soil health and regenerate the land.” In fact, grazing as currently practiced has negative impacts on the land.6,7 It is curious that she doesn’t talk about concentrated animal feeding operations, which are where nearly all our meat supply comes from,8 and which are an environmental and public health disaster.8,9

The fact that Grandin has a conflict of interest is noted at the bottom of her article, and this conflict infuses all corners of her perspective—from the way she presents science to the way she presents ethics. The essay does a great disservice to patients, students, clinicians, and animals by offering a scientifically and ethically misleading apology for the meat industry. Publishing her essay in this forum is irresponsible from a clinical and public health point of view, as well as in light of the profound threat of climate change, and it carries serious negative implications for animal well-being.


  1. MacDougall-Shackleton SA, Bonier F, Romero LM, Moore IT. Glucocorticoids and “stress” are not synonymous. Integr Org Biol. 2019;1(1):obz017.

  2. Broom D. Cortisol: often not the best indicator of stress and poor welfare. Physiology News Magazine. 2017;(107):10.36866/pn.107.30. Accessed April 10, 2023. https://www.physoc.org/magazine-articles/cortisol-often-not-the-best-indicator-of-stress-and-poor-welfare/

  3. Ferdowsian H. Phoenix Zones: Where Strength Is Born and Resilience Lives. University of Chicago Press; 2018.

  4. Bekoff M, Pierce J. The Animal’s Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age. Beacon Press; 2017.

  5. King B. Animals’ Best Friends: Putting Compassion to Work for Animals in Captivity and in the Wild. University of Chicago Press, 2021.

  6. Glaser C, Romaniello C, Moskowitz K. Costs and consequences: the real price of livestock grazing on America’s public lands. Center for Biological Diversity; 2015. Accessed April 10, 2023. https://www.biologicaldiversity.org/programs/public_lands/grazing/pdfs/CostsAndConsequences_01-2015.pdf

  7. Teague R, Kreuter V. Managing grazing to restore soil health, ecosystem function, and ecosystem services. Front Sustain Food Syst. 2020;4:10.3389/fsufs.2020.534187.

  8. Walton L, Jaiven KK. Regulating CAFOs for the well-being of farm animals, consumers, and the environment. Environ Law Report. 2020;50(6):10485-10497. Accessed April 20, 2023. https://www.elr.info/sites/default/files/article/2020/05/50.10485.pdf

  9. Hribar C; Schultz M, ed. Understanding concentrated animal feeding operations and their impact on communities. National Association of Local Boards of Health; 2010. Accessed April 10, 2023. https://www.cdc.gov/nceh/ehs/docs/understanding_cafos_nalboh.pdf


AMA J Ethics. 2023;25(6):E461-463.



Conflict of Interest Disclosure

The author(s) had no conflicts of interest to disclose.

The viewpoints expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the AMA.