Technology

A pig farm investigation exposes the industry’s practice of forced cannibalism


The animal welfare activist group Animal Outlook has been investigating the meat industry for over two decades, having documented chickens buried and roasted alive, thrashing pigs killed at a high-speed slaughterhouse, fish bludgeoned to death, and cows kicked and beaten, among many other cruelties. But at a pig breeding farm in Minnesota, 120 miles southeast of Minneapolis, between late 2019 and early 2020, an undercover investigator with the organization witnessed some of the worst cruelty they’d ever seen.

“It was brutal,” the investigator, who requested anonymity due to the covert nature of undercover investigations, told Vox. “They’re all really bad,” they said, referring to other investigations they’ve conducted, “but this one looked like a house of horrors.”

In one clip, a pregnant pig who got stuck between two pens and died is sawed in half. “Anyone want some ham?” one worker joked. “Ripped that bitch wide open,” another said. Animal Outlook’s investigator alleged that employees could’ve easily freed her before she died, but didn’t.

Male piglets at the farm have their tails cut off and testicles ripped out by hand without anesthesia or pain relief, both standard practices in the industry. The investigator filmed employees tossing the testicles at each other and at a wall that was covered in them. In another scene, a pregnant pig’s uterus has prolapsed, a painful condition that’s more common in older female breeding pigs, known as sows, who typically give birth to larger litters than younger sows. In the video, she’s herded down a hallway to be euthanized — shot in the head with a captive bolt gun — with her insides dangling to the ground. The investigator alleged this happened to between one and three pigs every day.

Sick and injured piglets on the farm are placed into a small black box to be euthanized with carbon dioxide poisoning, but some survive and are seen gasping for air amid a pile of dead piglets. In one instance captured on video, an injured piglet needed to be euthanized, but a supervisor appeared to say it wasn’t worth running a gassing cycle for just one animal, so he left the piglet to suffer overnight until there were more piglets that needed to be euthanized.

“That feels good,” one worker says in another clip, after repeatedly striking a pregnant pig with a paddle while trying to move her from one area to another.

Such cruelty could stress out other pigs who witness it, as research suggests pigs feel empathy for one another when in distress.

Animal Outlook’s investigation took place at a 3,300-sow breeding facility run by Holden Farms, a pork producer which, as of 2017, raised pigs for some of the world’s largest meat companies: Tyson Foods, JBS, and Triumph Foods. It’s an understatement to say the footage conflicts with Holden Farms’ approach to animal welfare stated on its website: “Do what’s best for the animal and practice the best animal husbandry skills possible.”

Holden Farms declined an interview request for this story. Tyson Foods, JBS, and Triumph Foods did not respond when asked if they currently supply pigs from Holden Farms.

(After the investigation concluded in early 2020, Animal Outlook took its findings to local enforcement and requested charges be brought against Holden Farms, Inc., its management, and several of its employees under the state’s animal cruelty laws. The statute of limitations has expired and no cruelty charges have been brought, so Animal Outlook is now releasing its findings to the public.)

It’s tempting to write off Holden Farms and some of its employees as bad apples, but the practices documented are customary in pork production, and the malicious abuse — the kicking, punching, and hitting — is found in investigation after investigation after investigation into the meat industry.

One of the more stomach-churning clips in Animal Outlook’s footage shows a practice that’s rarely been captured in other pork industry investigations. Employees can be seen removing the intestines of dead, disease-infected piglets and mixing them with piglet feces in a blender — a mixture to be fed to the adult breeding pigs — causing one worker to gag.

The practice, called “feedback,” is common in the pork business (or “controlled oral exposure” in industry jargon). The slurry of pig poop and parts is often fed to new female breeding pigs who’ve yet to give birth to help them adapt to the germs of the farm, and to pregnant pigs to help them pass down immunity from disease to their babies, through their milk.

Animal Outlook’s investigator said the farm had begun using feedback because some piglets were getting sick with diarrhea, losing weight, and their skin was turning from pink to a grayish hue.

Why the pork industry feeds feces and raw intestines to pigs

To drive down costs, the meat industry relies on practices that can increase the spread of disease, like overcrowding and intensive breeding, which can trigger the need for gruesome practices like feedback to work around the problems it’s created.

It might make you lose your appetite, but many in the pork industry say feeding pigs what amounts to a smoothie of feces and intestines reduces the spread of disease on farms when there isn’t an effective vaccine available (though some recommend using it in addition to vaccines). And disease is a big deal on farms. Around one-third of pigs die before they ever reach the slaughterhouse, leading to enormous suffering for animals and significant losses for the producers, as they breed more pigs to make up for the early deaths.

Cesar Corzo, an associate professor of swine health and productivity at the University of Minnesota, defends the practice, comparing feedback to childhood chickenpox parties. Before the chickenpox vaccine came to market in 1995, parents would often bring infected kids together with uninfected kids, on the grounds that they would be better off contracting the disease as children than as adults. (Public health experts now recommend against intentionally infecting kids with disease in lieu of vaccination.) The same rough idea is at play in feedback.

“Those [piglets], when they come out into the world, if they happen to see some virus or some bacteria, they’re prepared to fight against it,” Corzo said. “We know that that works really well.”

Research into pig feedback began in the 1950s, and it’s since come into wide use. Some pig researchers say that while feedback has clear benefits in fighting, for example, PEDv — a virus that caused hundreds of millions of dollars in economic loss to the pork industry a decade ago — it can be risky, and there’s no standard protocol. As a result, there’s a lot of variability in its deployment, with inconsistent outcomes.

Other industry experts say the way feedback is usually practiced is inefficient and unsafe. Corzo said there are efforts underway to standardize its use.

Jim Reynolds, a bovine veterinarian in California who’s also worked with pigs and specializes in epidemiology, said the practice makes sense in theory, but he doesn’t recommend it in part because it risks exposing animals to unintended diseases.

“If you’re grinding up dead things and feeding them to the not sick things, that’s a bad idea. That’s bad biosecurity,” he said. “It’s intentionally spreading pathogens… Hopefully, it’s just the one you want. It might be another one.”

Reynolds and others argue that many of the industry’s health and welfare issues boil down to overcrowding. Farms should “decrease the stocking densities to reasonable levels” to minimize disease spread, he said.

From a consumer perspective, the debate over whether or not feedback is worth the risk may be largely irrelevant. That much was evident in the early 2010s fight over so-called pink slime, a mix of meat scraps processed with chemicals meant to kill bacteria, that was turned into filler for beef products. It’s safe to eat but repulsed the public, leading fast food chains to swear off its use.

While feedback may be particularly off-putting, it’s a symptom of a larger problem: America’s enduring desire for cheap, plentiful meat, which has given way to thousands of massive factory farms where stressed, genetically identical animals with poor immune systems are tightly packed together, providing the perfect conditions for disease to spread.

Why you probably don’t know how sausage gets made

Americans eat more animals than practically any other country — around 264 pounds of red and white meat, 280 eggs, 667 pounds of dairy, and around 20.5 pounds of seafood per person each year. To meet demand, an estimated 99 percent of animals raised and slaughtered for food in the US are kept on factory farms.

The pork industry has pushed pigs to their biological limits, leading to many bizarre practices beyond feedback, many of which are inhumane. To name one example recently in the news: There are horse farms that impregnate horses, extract their blood for a serum, abort their pregnancies, and then sell the serum to pig farms to induce puberty in young female pigs and produce larger litters. Holden Farms, like most pig breeding farms, confine pregnant pigs in gestation crates, cages so small they can’t turn around for practically their entire lives.

Sows in gestation crates.
Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals Media

These practices are all legal and widespread because lawmakers have made them so. The federal Animal Welfare Act excludes livestock from protection, while many state animal cruelty laws exempt “customary farming practices,” allowing the industry to define what’s customary. Big Ag is one of the more powerful lobbies in Washington.

In some states, it’s even illegal to conduct investigations like the one featured in this story. From the early 1990s to the early 2020s, a number of states passed “ag-gag” laws, which generally prohibit people from taking videos or photographs on farms without permission. Fortunately, most have been struck down as unconstitutional.

Industry has responded to consumer concerns with the practices brought to light in undercover investigations largely with empty gestures, like firing individual employees for abuse instead of meaningfully changing conditions for animals. There’s now a proliferation of meat, dairy, and egg labels carrying buzzwords or stamps of approval — like “humanely raised” or “farm fresh” — that receive little scrutiny from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), have no legal definition, and exaggerate the level of animal welfare or environmental sustainability on a farm. It’s known as “humanewashing,” and you can look at Holden Farms’ website for a prime example, which highlights the company’s extensive commitments to animal welfare, family farming, community, and sustainability.

Meat industry groups have also fought hard against laws that require sows to be raised crate-free.

In June, the National Pork Board, a quasi-governmental organization administered by the USDA, launched a five-year effort in collaboration with several large public universities, aiming to “share research-based information about the pork industry” to strengthen consumers’ confidence in pork and demonstrate the industry’s “commitment to people, pigs and the planet.” The effort doesn’t appear to include any plans to change practices that consumers find inhumane.

Producing just about any commodity at scale entails some degree of moral sacrifice. But an industry that relies on a kind of forced cannibalism, among other repellant practices, might have to do a whole lot more than share research to earn consumer trust.