Undercover investigations by animal protection groups have completely changed the national discussion about food. By working on factory farms and documenting egregious animal cruelty, and also standard farming practices, these investigations shine a spotlight on what the agriculture industry wants to keep hidden from consumers.
One of these investigators, Mike Wolf, spent almost four years working in animal agriculture and documenting animal cruelty. His investigations include hog farm suppliers to Smithfield and Hormel, which combined, have resulted in dozens of criminal cruelty charges. Mike is now the Investigations Manager at Compassion Over Killing, where he oversees investigative efforts into meat, dairy, and egg facilities.
I sat down with Mike talk about what he’s learned as an investigator, what changes these investigations have created, and what’s next in light of new ag-gag laws criminalizing these whistleblowers.
WP: To start things off, I’d like to look at a recent investigation with Quality Pork Processors. Can you walk us through what your investigation uncovered, and what the response has been?
MW: I’d love to, and thank you so much for taking the time to interview me and bring some light to the work we are doing at Compassion Over Killing. Our investigation into Quality Pork Processors uncovered numerous horrors which Hormel’s pigs are forced to endure. There was a lot of egregious abuse, including pigs who were beaten, dragged while conscious, shoved, and electrically shocked over and over again–as well as being shocked on the face and genitals. Downer pigs, who are too sick or injured to get up and walk, faced the worst brutality from the workers because they tried to force them to move. Pigs were being improperly stunned, and some of them regained consciousness on the slaughter lines. At least one pig, who we know of, was still alive just prior to entering the scalding tank, and our investigator saw many bright red carcasses possibly indicative of the pigs having been scalded alive.
We also found potential food safety issues, as our investigator documented an immense number of pig carcasses destined for the food supply which were covered in feces and riddled with pus-filled abscesses. On more than one occasion, our investigator documented thick green pus oozing out of these abscesses.
Many of these issues are made exponentially worse by the fact that QPP is a HIMP facility. That means that they are taking part in a pilot government program where slaughter line speeds are increased and government inspections are decreased. We found that the workers were taking inhumane shortcuts to keep up with the speeds necessary. For example, one supervisor told our investigator that they sometimes do not have time to move downer pigs with the ‘sled’ (which is the standard way to move them), so in those instances they can push, pull, and do whatever they need to in order to get the downer out of the pen quickly. HIMP takes the oversight away from the USDA and puts it more squarely in the hands of the facility itself. Our investigator documented facility supervisors (who were responsible for overseeing the proper stunning and slaughter of the pigs) sleeping on the job, cheering on a worker while they were improperly stunning a pig, and throwing blood-soaked paper towels at other workers. The line speeds at QPP are so fast that, on average, the worker who bleeds the pigs has to cut the throat of a pig every 5 seconds for an entire shift. Why do plants such as QPP continue to process pigs at line speeds which are impossible to keep up with? Because in addition to the increased suffering, they also bring increased profits.
The response to our investigation has been incredible, and rightfully so. People are shocked and outraged. Our YouTube video hit one Million views in a mere matter of days. The media coverage has been phenomenal, several outlets (such as NowThis) have made their own videos of our footage, and we’ve received tons of messages from people telling us that this investigation has opened their eyes and they are now going vegetarian or vegan.
From a legal perspective, we’re still in contact with the Minnesota authorities. They were waiting for the USDA to conclude their investigation, which they have recently done. The USDA immediately wrote up a few animal handling violations based on our footage, but after acknowledging numerous additional problems that we documented, they failed to take more meaningful action. Not surprisingly, later that same month, QPP was issued another “noncompliance report” for improper stunning. Shortly after that, the USDA documented an incident of inhumane slaughter, and because QPP recently had violations from our investigation, in addition to these new violations, the plant was temporarily shut down.
We have also created a petition asking the USDA to put an end to this high-speed slaughter program. Our petition has done incredibly, with almost 200K signatures on it currently. I would love to ask the readers to please add your voice to our petition, if you haven’t already. The USDA was planning on potentially expanding HIMP to every single pig slaughter plant in the US. Recently, 60 Congress members wrote a letter to the USDA urging them to evaluate the efficacy of HIMP, in light of our investigation, before hastily expanding it. At this time, it looks as if they will not be expanding the HIMP program, though we are still calling on the USDA to end HIMP altogether.
WP: It seems like every week, or more, I’m seeing another headline about a major supplier or business changing their practices, largely in response to the efforts of groups like yours. What do these changes mean for consumers and, most importantly, for animals?
MW: This is a great question–these changes are so significant, and I believe they are a huge indicator as to the direction that we, as a society, are heading. For consumers who are already aware of the issues and make more compassionate food choices, these changes are a reminder that their concerns are being heard, and are a motivational tool to help keep them plugging away at the issues which face farm animals. For consumers who are not vegan, and may not be aware of how their food is produced, these headlines and changes put welfare issues front and center for them. They may read about it online or see an item in a grocery store which can really make them think, maybe for the first time, about what farmed animals are going through.
These changes, obviously, affect the animals the most. They give them more room, or result in them experiencing less pain. Changes such as egg producers shifting from caged housing to cage-free housing or pig producers shifting from crates to group housing are so incredibly important for them. Since we can’t eradicate factory farming overnight, these changes are vital for the billions of animals who are languishing on factory farms right now. If we have the ability to reduce their suffering even the tiniest bit, we absolutely should. Fortunately, these welfare advancements continue to educate the public about the extent of suffering taking place in factory farms and in slaughterhouses, and consequently produce further positive changes within the industry and in consumer purchasing decisions.
WP: I think it’s a testament to the power of your work that ag-gag bills have been introduced and passed in multiple states. What has been the real impact of these laws on your investigations?
MW: Thank you very much—and I agree—I find Ag-Gag to be an immense compliment to every organization which performs undercover investigations because it shows just how scared these industries are of us. The fact that extremely powerful industries lobby state legislatures so forcefully to adopt laws which shield them from the investigative work of a handful of animal advocacy groups is mind-blowing. They know that they need these bills, because without them, more people would become educated on the issues, would stop supporting them, and they would lose money. I think what the average consumer should be concerned with is the fact that these producers find it that necessary to shroud themselves in secrecy. They’re not conducting top-secret black-op missions behind enemy lines–they’re farming. What consumers should ask themselves is this: if you left your dog at a day care center while you went to work, would you rather know if your dog was being abused, or have the whistleblower thrown in jail for trying to alert you?
As flattering as Ag-Gag laws are, they do have a large impact on our investigations. We conduct all investigations within the confines of the law, so an Ag-Gag state is off-limits. It shouldn’t come as a shock that the number 1 and number 2 states for pig production (Iowa and North Carolina) have both passed Ag-Gag laws. Ironically, both of those laws have come about immediately following one of our investigations—Hawkeye Sow Centers in IA, and Mountaire Farms in NC.
Luckily, these laws are on the way out. A Federal judge in Idaho recently declared their Ag-Gag law unconstitutional, and struck it down. It’s only a matter of time before the remaining states follow suit—because these laws are a clear infringement on our rights as citizens.
WP: There has been a lot of comments from industry groups supportive of ag-gag bills that undercover investigations by animal rights groups have “doctored” footage, or that this is a dramatic ploy to get donations. I haven’t seen any evidence of this, but could you respond to that line of questioning? In particular, what are the steps you go through to ensure the investigations are accurate, as well as the footage that is released?
MW: Great question, and thank you for asking this. There is simply no need to doctor the footage—the conditions in these facilities are really just that bad. During most investigations we document incredibly egregious abuse–punching, kicking, beating with objects, etc. You can’t edit that in, or take it out of context. The fact that the industry implies that the footage must be doctored to make it look that bad is almost comical. They are admitting how terrible the conditions really are, in an indirect way.
I would be more than happy to make myself available for a polygraph to attest to the fact that I have never been involved with an investigation, in the field or otherwise, which has been altered in any way. Here’s the thing—the industry wouldn’t ever take me up on that. They know that the footage is legitimate, but they are making these allegations as a last-ditch effort to try to divert attention away from the issue at hand—how horrifically the animals are being treated.
When I have an investigator working an assignment, I review their footage the day they record it. When we are ready to release an investigation, we obviously need to trim the video down to a reasonable length for the public to view. But, when we approach law enforcement, we make all of our raw footage available for them. They not only can see the context of any clip, but they can also verify the legitimacy of the footage. IF footage was ever doctored—and to my knowledge, there’s not a single shred of evidence that’s ever happened—the authorities would be able to determine that, and the public would have heard it from them—not from the industry groups who have the most to lose from our investigations.
WP: As a related question: What was it like having to participate in practices you disagree with? How did you prepare yourself for that mentally, and also how have you processed doing this type of work, which some investigators say take a serious toll?
MW: I get asked this a lot. I can’t sugar-coat it—it’s pretty horrible. When you’re the one who’s causing an animal pain with your own hands, and you look into their eyes and see their suffering—the innocence and idealism inside of you dies. It changes who you are—forever. What you do with that change is what defines who you are. Successful investigators will take that and use it, and never forget it.
Don’t get me wrong—investigators must have an outlet for it. You can’t just let it build and build inside of you, or it will eat you up. Some investigators like to do yoga, read, meditate, or run. When I was in the field, I used lifting as my outlet–the gym has always been where I get out all of my aggression.
People will ask how an investigator can justify to themselves performing those practices. It’s a bigger picture mentality. The way to look at it is that all of those animals who are in factory farms and slaughter plants right now are hopeless. They’ve already been born into the system. We are there to help prevent future generations of animals from being born into it—and that is exactly what is happening. Half a billion fewer animals every year are being born, raised, and killed for food. I would say that a large percentage of those animals have been spared that life due to investigations work.
However you look at it, it most certainly does take a serious toll. Investigators are often physically injured on the job, worked to the point of sheer exhaustion, and isolated in the middle of nowhere. But years after you’ve retired from the field—you aren’t up at night thinking about the lonely nights, the long workdays, or the injuries. You’re up thinking about the animals who you hurt, hoping that they understood—hoping that you performed those practices in a way that caused them less harm than any other worker.
WP: Personally speaking, undercover investigations have had a profound effect on me. However, I’ve begun to hear some animal advocates question whether the public may become “numb” to this type of footage, or tune it out. Is that something you think about, strategically? How do undercover investigations fit into the bigger picture of advocating for animals?
MW: That is a good question. People may become ‘numb’ to it as a defense mechanism. They know that it’s wrong, and they can’t justify continuing to support it, so subconsciously they tune it out. It still plants a seed in their mind, though, and you never know when they may start to question their eating habits. Even if a member of the public has tuned out the footage, it still can’t hurt for them to see it. If seeing the footage doesn’t change their eating habits, then not seeing it certainly won’t. I do believe, though, that the amount of people who go numb to the footage are a small percentage of the public. After every investigation we release, we receive so many messages thanking us, telling us that they had no idea, and describing how it has changed their lives.
From a strategic point of view, I feel that the more we can show the public how widespread and systemic these issues are, the better. We’ve all heard those arguments that the horrors are “only at a few bad apple farms”, or that “sure that happened in the past, but things are different these days”. With each new investigation release, we show the public that the horrors not only continue to happen, but that they also happen everywhere.
I would suggest that investigations are not only the key to the bigger picture of advocating for animals, but they’re the entire doorway into advocacy—for a very simple reason. They are the only way we see what it’s truly like behind the secret walls of factory farms and slaughter plants. How do you know where you’re going, if you don’t know where you are?
Investigations play such a key role in all other sectors of the movement as well. They provide the proof for lawsuits, the substance for leaflets and pay-per-view videos, the fuel that drives corporate policy changes, and so much more. When I first went into the field, MySpace was the most popular social media platform. As technology has evolved, the use, and the reach, of investigation footage has grown exponentially. I am incredibly excited to see where it will go and how it will evolve in the coming years.
WP: In your current role, you’re sharing your knowledge and also recruiting new investigators. What types of people are you looking for to become investigators? And what would you say to someone who is wondering if they can do this work?
MW: There’s really no specific mold that we look for. Good investigators come from all walks of life and all backgrounds. It’s such a unique position—it’s really more of a lifestyle than a job. Most people decide that it’s not for them based on the need to perform standard practices (such as castration or debeaking), the travel requirements, and the long days and weeks of manual labor. For the remaining applicants, it’s really more about the commitment and dedication that I sense from them.
For someone who is wondering if they can do the work, a good first step would be to take a look at all of our investigations. Try to put yourself in the investigator’s shoes. Envision yourself in that facility—take in all the sights, the sounds, the smells. Then, send me an email. You can send your cover letter and resume to firstname.lastname@example.org. I would prefer to have everyone email me, even if they are not the right fit, rather than to have someone shy away from emailing because they are unsure if they could do it. We could talk about it, and most times, it becomes a lot clearer after that.
WP: Finally, I know you are active powerlifter, and was wondering if you could us how you got into that, and why.
MW: Definitely. I started weightlifting in high school—which (wow, I feel old) was 20 years ago. Lifting has always been my crutch. No matter what’s going on in life, when I lift, it clears my head and allows me to focus—I get my best thinking done at that time. I first went into the field 10 years ago. When going on assignment, I would check out the area and live as close to the gym as I could. Lifting truly served its purpose for me in those days—it supported me, it was the comforting hug which I needed after an emotionally and physically grueling day.
Fast forward to 2013, and my friends Giacomo and Dani (founders of Vegan Proteins) formed PlantBuilt, an all-vegan fitness team. That first year, they were a small group of bodybuilders, and they competed together at the Naturally Fit Games. The purpose is to compete against non-vegans and to show that you can be competitive and thrive on a vegan diet. I LOVED this concept. Throughout the years, I kept lifting for that very reason—to show that you can be vegan and still be big—that you can get all the protein you need in order to build muscle mass. They did amazing that first year, and after that they decided to add on powerlifting, crossfit, and kettlebell teams. I joined and competed in powerlifting in 2014 and 2015, and it’s been a blast. The team has such a family feel to it, and everyone is there for the same reason—to promote veganism and help animals.
It’s not about anyone’s individual egos, and it’s incredible to see so many amazingly compassionate people come together for that reason.