June 25th, 2014
08:45 PM ET
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CNN Exclusive by CNN Investigative Correspondent Chris Frates

Wake County, North Carolina - Chickens buried alive. Pigs so sick that their intestines hang out of their bodies. These are some of the grisly scenes from videos taken by animal rights activists who went undercover at farms that produce food destined for dinner tables.

It’s a tactic animal rights activists have used for years, going undercover at slaughterhouses and factory farms to document squalid conditions, abuse and neglect. Their videos have gone mainstream and led to criminal charges, fines and even the largest meat recall in American history.

But undercover video is under attack and with it, activists argue, their ability to expose animal abuses that can make meat dangerous to eat.

Blog: Erin Burnett Out Front

Increasingly, industries that have been infiltrated and exposed by undercover activists are counterpunching. In state capitols around the country, the agriculture industry is pushing legislation that would essentially outlaw undercover investigations and the videos they produce.

In the past two years, three states have passed so-called “ag-gag” laws while 14 others have considered similar legislation, according to The Humane Society of the United States.

Matthew Dominguez of the Humane Society, said undercover investigations are a critical tool activists use to keep a secretive industry in check.

“These investigations have exposed not only animal abuse but also food safety, workers’ rights, environmental issues,” he said. “These ag-gag bills should scare every American because Americans have a right to know what’s happening with their food. They have a right to know where their food is coming from.”

Shocking footage from a chicken farm

Prince Poultry is a chicken farm less than an hour southwest of Raleigh, North Carolina. Posing as a college intern, an employee with the animal-rights group Compassion Over Killing filmed workers burying chickens alive among other decaying birds.

In one scene from the video given to CNN, she asks whether a farm hand is going to kill a bird destined for the burial pit.

“No, we’re going to drop them in the pit just like they are,” the worker responds. “You dump them in there and then Mother Nature takes care of the rest. You go in there in the summertime, and it smells real nice over there. If you look down in there, it’s like a gravy that’s simmering and squirming.”

In an interview, the undercover activist, who did not want to be identified, said, “I saw cruel practices every day I was on the farm from the first day to the final day. I'd say everything that you see in the footage is standard there.”

It’s that kind of footage that North Carolina state Sen. Brent Jackson has proposed outlawing. Animal activists say it’s an effort to lock the barn door and keep the public in the dark.

On the floor of the state Senate, we wanted to ask Jackson about his proposal. It was a short conversation.

“I don’t have anything to say to CNN,” the Republican state lawmaker responded.

The North Carolina Poultry Federation and the North Carolina Chamber also declined to talk about Jackson’s proposal.

On the farm where the chickens were buried alive, owner Tim Prince said he was surprised to learn that his former intern was actually an undercover animal rights activist.

“She's taken six weeks of work and narrowed it down to a few bad things I’ve done. And I’ve done it. It's obvious,” Prince told CNN. “She took just a very minute little things that we’ve done wrong.”

Pressed on that point, Prince admitted that people might think burying chickens alive is more than a small transgression and that the birds should have been killed more humanely. But, he says, he does care for his birds. After all, they are his livelihood.

“I try to run a clean business. And there was a few things on there I saw that shouldn’t happen,” he said, adding that he worried how the video would affect his business.

'His choice in terms of how to operate his facility'

The head of the group that produced the video has little sympathy for the chicken farmer.

“What we documented is how he is operating his facility, and it’s unfortunate that what we documented is so egregious that we hope that state authorities will get involved and prosecute this case for burying birds alive,” said Compassion Over Killing executive director Erica Meier. “That was his choice in terms of how to operate his facility.”

The group said it has filed a complaint with local law enforcement authorities. A spokeswoman for the North Carolina Department of Justice confirmed that the State Bureau of Investigation has opened an investigation into alleged animal cruelty at Prince Poultry.

Prince grows about a million chickens a year exclusively for Pilgrim's Pride - the second largest chicken producer in the world that sells chicken to major supermarkets and fast-food restaurants.

"Out of an abundance of caution, we have retrained the grower in question and his employees,” Pilgrim's said in a statement to CNN. “Pilgrim's prioritizes the welfare of our chickens, whether under our direct care or under the care of our contract growers. The proper treatment of animals is one of our core beliefs."

Perhaps one of the most shocking things about factory farms is that there’s almost no one watching them. There is little federal oversight so undercover activists are often the only way abuses are uncovered.

An undercover video shot by a PETA employee shows what the group says are lame and sick pigs left to languish in a so-called junk pen, without veterinary care. At the Wisconsin farm owned by Babcock Genetics, the pigs were so sick their intestines hung out their bodies while others were unable to walk, PETA said. The animal rights group filed a complaint with the local district attorney, who confirmed his office is reviewing it.

In the complaint, PETA included the opinion of experts in veterinarian medicine and pig production.

“They were unanimous in saying that these animals suffered unnecessary and excessive pain,” said PETA’s Dan Paden, adding the animals either needed immediate veterinarian care or to be put down.

If the pigs survived, they would be sold for meat to a slaughterhouse where they would then be inspected, he said.

Could consumers' health be at risk?

Some experts say it might not be safe to eat. Dr. Neal Barnard, president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, said the meat could carry a deadly infection.

“When you look at this kind of footage, what you are really seeing is a cauldron that is just producing bacteria that get into the food that ultimately makes its way into your home,” said Barnard, whose organization advocates a plant-based diet.

“As a doctor,” he said, “I would advise any parent who has ever had a sick kid to realize that these illnesses come from somewhere. Very often they come from the fact that animals are abused and are sick on farms, and we didn’t realize that we were bringing that disease into our homes, threatening our own family.”

Babcock’s company veterinarian, Darwin Kohler, said PETA’s allegations were untrue, even before he saw the video.

“Any allegations are false, because I know what goes on in the barn,” he said.

Eventually, Kohler watched the video, twice, and said it was taken out of context.

"We are committed to caring for animals in a way that protects their well-being. ... A third-party audit of the farm in question is being conducted,” the company said in a statement to CNN. “Based on the audit's findings, we will make appropriate corrective actions if needed."

In both cases, it was the undercover activists' video that brought alleged mistreatment to light. But if supporters of ag-gag laws are successful, these kind of exposés would essentially be outlawed and the abuses they uncover kept behind closed doors.

This story was reported in North Carolina, Wisconsin and Minnesota. CNN’s Glen Dacy contributed.

Blog: Erin Burnett Out Front
Opinion: Exposing animal cruelty is not a crime
Do consumers really want to see where their food comes from?
'Ag gag' laws suppress animal cruelty whistleblowers
Blocking 'ag gag' laws may prolong abuse
What the 'ag gag' bills mean to my farm
Farming in a fishbowl

soundoff (635 Responses)
  1. tnichols2014

    What people do to animals upsets me. To know that we could be eating contaminated meat is a very scary thought. What gives them the right to abuse animals? When the slaughter house is making a profit off the animals they abuse. How much since does that make when they are messing up their own profit. The profit that helps support their families. I’m glad these places are exposed to everyone so the people can see what goes on before there meat hits the supermarket. How these animals suffer before they are put to sleep for their meat?
    Another problem is these people are abusing the animals and selling their meat to the stores. If the animals are sick and the meat is sold anyway to the stores. That means that the meat will be contaminated. It will pass to people who eat the meat. So these slaughter houses have no consideration for others and what wide spread of virus it start among the people. They get away with doing these types of things because isn’t enforced by the government agencies when complaints are filed. These people are supposed to help protect these animals. One is keeping a close eye on the slaughter houses and set better update rules to comply. Good thing that the animals who have activists to speak on their behalf. The people who undercover what is happening get a chance to spoke people what is happening. They use their evidence to help everyone see the importance’s of doing something to stop it. All of the evidence helps to uncover the reason for different virus coming from the meat. This undercover footage shows how this affects the quality of food being raised. These animals in my eyes showed are treated with some type respect just for breathing the same air as me and others do.
    I’m not against eating meat but, I do want to see the meat that I’m eating is raised correctly and treated well. Not to have to live hell before there death. These animals should be relaxed before there life is taken. I thought about cutting a meat or two out my diet. I grow up on meat and it very hard to stop eating it.

    October 3, 2014 at 11:58 pm |
    • sandcanyongal

      The reason is the sheer arrogance of people thinking that we're all that matter. The only time the cruelty to animals is exposed is in undercover filming. I believe it's unconstitutional to prevent filming of cruelty. To stop it, don't vote the politicians into office that have all been bought off by the food industry.

      Don't eat meat.

      Just to make my point much clearer, Japan kills porposes tainted with heavy doses of mercury and feeds the meat to school children for lunch; both rhinocerous, elephants, big cats, bears, wolves and many other animals are on the brink of extinction and no one does anything at all to stop it. The poachers should be killed on the spot. Just look at Seaworld's disgusting exploitation creature that are as intelligent as man. Yet they're still in small tanks for the pleasure of people watching them do tricks. Most people are so wrapped up in watching stupid sitcoms and shopping that they miss the realities of life. But just look at our own U.S. politicians and military justifying the wholesale murder of innocent citizens of other countries to defend oil and the routes.

      October 4, 2014 at 4:54 pm |
  2. Tracy carmey

    that's the problem with our government that making a dollar more important than humane treatment animals and the people that treat animals badly go home and treat their families badly so just turns into domestic abuse after all at the end of the day because of you can treat animal poorly anything and if you want my opinion those places should already have cameras mounted in them so that we can see all the crap they're trying to feed when there's open wounds intestines hanging out of animals stupid stuff like that it just spread infection and then we eat it so go ahead and enjoy your pork chops Congress or a steak just close your eyes don't even think about any of what that place is spreading I bet you wouldn't feed your your family from that slaughterhouse oh wait you guys get top dollar meat from slaughterhouses ran by the government because we pay you so well if you had to live like the American people do you would have a totally different opinion

    September 18, 2014 at 3:07 pm |
  3. Sara Pemberton

    If you eat meat, YOU ARE SUPPORTING THESE DEMONS THAT TORTURE THESE DEFENSELESS ANIMALS! There is NO humane slaughter! It is what it is! For all of those out there that think the meat, egg, milk, etc. industry is okay, let's put YOU in the same situation of torment, suffering, hopelessness and fear these animals feel, day after day until they are kicked, punched, jerked up by their hind legs or ears, and while they fight for their life that same disgusting demon slits your throat and then throws you in a pile of other animals suffering and still trying to cling to life!

    It is the 21st. century and you would think that the human race would have evolved out of the mindless, barbaric, savage state. Grow up and stop being so self-absorbed, IT'S NOT ALL ABOUT YOU!

    August 27, 2014 at 10:43 pm |
    • sandcanyongal

      Thank you for your comment. I worked in animal research in the late '60s as a young medical technologist. Research happens behind guarded door without any possibility of the public every witnessing what happens behind the doors. Animals are tools, bred for reseach and will never get out alive. It does not happen. Period.

      I still have nightmares and think I've probably spent most of my life rescuing lots of animals making us for what I did. Fortunately I have lots of land and a few nickles to rub together to make it possible.

      You're right that no animal deserves to be on our plates and yet so many feels it's perfectly ok to mass slaughter animals.

      September 16, 2014 at 3:30 am |
      • Huong Pham

        Hi Sandcanyongal, thanks for caring about animals. You are not alone, I am one of millions people were bind by the well hidden secrete of the meat industry, knowing animals are slaughtering every minutes in daily life, but never had a chance seeing how their suffering affect my daily meals until listening and watching the earthlink from Gary Yourofsky and listening to his forceful statements. I am now have changed myself to be not a meat eater because of Gary's talked show on Youtube. I believe many people who are not animal lovers still refuse to watch these realities. But if our laws allow to put these real documents on CNN and CBC, there will be a large amount of people who are willing to refuse to eat meat. Then everyone can live on this planet wihout feeling so guilty and we have much a more cleaner fesh air, a world free from disease and sufferings to all. Thanks for under investigations and footage under covers from animal activists. I feel a lot more happy to be a vegetarians and will live longer, only that it will help me to wish to live longer. Otherwise I always see this world should be ended soon as so much sufferings have going on for both human and animals. I do have sympathy for good farmers, but wish the world find out the best solutions for them when we all become vegans one day.

        September 24, 2014 at 12:42 pm |
        • sandcanyongal

          I'm sickened that the Japanes fishermen are right now, slaugthering dolphins because it is their "way of life." They also carry high levels of mercury and it is fed to school children. Also Dolphins are considered to be "Non human humans" around the world that should have the same rights as homosapians.

          Mercury risk poses threat to Japanese dolphin hunt
          By Martin Fackler, NYT

          TAIJI, Japan — For years, Western activists have traveled to this remote port to protest the annual dolphin "drive." And for years, local fishermen have ignored them, herding the animals into a small cove and slashing them until the tide flows red. But now a new menace may succeed where activists have failed: mercury.

          This town of 3,500 residents on a majestic, rocky stretch of coast is fiercely proud of its centuries-old tradition of hunting dolphins and whaling. Residents are used to the international scorn that accompanies the dolphin drive, almost as much an annual ritual as the drive itself, and have closed ranks in the face of rising outrage – until now.

          Dolphin meat is a prized local delicacy, served raw as sashimi or boiled with soy sauce. But in June, laboratory tests showed high levels of mercury in dolphin and pilot whale, a small whale that resembles a dolphin, caught and sold here. At the urging of two town council members, schools promised to stop serving pilot whale for lunch, and some local supermarkets removed it and dolphin from their shelves.

          Rather than embrace the changes, this tight-knit community has been divided, with most local officials and the fishermen's union insisting that the mercury threat is being overblown, while a minority here has begun to question a tradition.

          "We are not against whaling," including the dolphin hunts, said Junichiro Yamashita, one of the council members, who paid for the mercury tests himself after the town refused to pay. "This is a small town, where people are afraid to speak out. But we can't sit silent about a health problem like this."

          September 25, 2014 at 1:22 pm |
    • Huong Pham

      I totally agree with all of you who care for animal welfare, and who support animal activists for their excellent work to bring justice to daily life for public awareness. I believe our world will become a lot more cleaner, more peaceful, less wars, or even having no wars without pouring millions on weapons, and wars for peace keeping missions.

      Once, we are all becomes vegan, agriculture farming industries will become even more booming, farmers will live in a nice better environments with fresh air, easy work, planting a lot of vegetables, wheat, rice fields, fruit trees, healthy attractive crops, not bloody smell, disgusting air polutions of rotten fleshes and bones from animals, Think about a peaceful , clean fresh air, opposite with a bloody, nasty environment, hard work for farmers, why don't these farmers see the benefit from vegan society. vegan helps farmers get a nice, easy work in a green beautiful environments, doubles their economic wealth, make workers calm down, enjoy working in a nice enviroments, agricultures aspects changed in a much more beautiful perspectives regarding good things, balanced pockets and moral values, healthier life styles, more peaceful work, much more enjoyable seeing growing trees, rather heat wrenging of suffering living beings in a holocausts, concentration camps for both human and animals. I do not see any thing wrong with having the world of vegan, What human have to lose? I do not understand why acceptance for a better change becomes so hard to follow?

      September 26, 2014 at 3:59 pm |
      • sandcanyongal

        People do care, many of us. David Suzuki launched the blue dot because he loves our planet. http://www.vancouverobserver.com/news/david-suzuki-launches-blue-dot-tour-hoping-alter-canadas-constitution

        September 28, 2014 at 10:37 pm |
    • sandcanyongal

      Great post.

      October 4, 2014 at 5:03 pm |
  4. Tim

    Remember North Carolina state Sen. Brent Jackson next time you vote in NC for your next senator.

    August 25, 2014 at 7:46 pm |
  5. sandcanyongal

    Besides being an exibitionist, maybe you should learn to read what you eat.
    From Americas Test Kitchen.
    Dear Home Cook,
    Christopher Kimball
    First, a quick note: If you would like to continue receiving this radiogram, just click here. Thanks.

    This month, we went undercover into the world of junk and supermarket foods to find out the truth about food made in America. I interview Laurent Adamowicz, who discovered “what your food has been eating.” Did you know that the lettuce on your burger may contain pesticides and heavy metals, that a hamburger bun can contain 31 ingredients including three or four different types of sugar, and that fish are sometimes fed pellets made from beef byproducts? (In other words, that trout you just grilled was raised on a Paleo diet!). We also dig deep into the junk food industry to discover why and how many processed food companies “weaponize” sugar, fat, and salt to make their foods addictive. And we travel down to Georgia to investigate the strange phenomenon of eating “white dirt”—it's called kaolin and is also used to make porcelain and cosmetics. It's sold in convenience stores and some women eat more than a pound a day! Finally, we get up close and personal with Lidia Bastianich, who grew up in Istria (currently part of Croatia) and met Christopher Walken at a Queens bakery when she was just 14.

    Before we move on, here's a reminder of where you can download our weekly public radio show.
    To download our weekly podcast, follow this link to iTunes. Or stream and/or download the show from our own radio website at AmericasTestKitchenRadio.com. We are also available through TuneIn and Stitcher.

    August 16, 2014 at 3:42 pm |
  6. Jane

    If the slaughter houses are being run legally and properly there should be no problem with anyone coming in and filming what ever they want. You can take a tour through many factories – how the meat people eat is handled should be open to everyone. Also everyone who eats meat should be interested in how the animals are killed.

    August 16, 2014 at 11:12 am |
  7. sandcanyongal

    One last note. The most abusive government agency is U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services. Not sure if links are allowed but here goes. There are 3 direct stories in the series and 2 others from the Sacramento Bee about wildlife services, the killing agency.

    August 16, 2014 at 4:17 am |
  8. BK

    Please issue a correction regarding "14 others have considered similar legislation", given the Humane Society's site: http://www.humanesociety.org/issues/campaigns/factory_farming/fact-sheets/ag_gag.html

    Wikipedia also differs: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ag-gag

    August 15, 2014 at 1:20 pm |
    • McD

      Never try to prove your point by siting Wikipedia.

      August 15, 2014 at 1:39 pm |
    • sandcanyongal

      A general comment. We all grow up eating red meat, poultry and fish. Aside from the fact we eat animal flesh, fish is full of mercury, poultry isn't even supposed to touch other items in a kitch or even washed because of the bacteria and red meat clogs arteries. Admittedly it's difficult breaking the habit, just like quitting TV.

      I had female hogs and they're incredibly bright. I worked in malaria research as a young woman and worked with chickens. They're wonderful creatures. Never had fish as pets but I'm sure people who are familiar with them find them intelligent too. Some cultures don't eat meat, others like American Indians respect what they kill. There's no conceivable reason why slaughter houses should kill in secrecy. We should all be able to view what is being killed and put on our tables. The entire idea of banning anyone from filming and exposing cruelty is nuts and none of us should support it.

      August 16, 2014 at 4:11 am |
  9. sandcanyongal

    I worked in malaria research in Chicago out of school. The experiments done on mice, rats and chicken were cruelty beyond comprehension. It happens behind closed University door like at IITRI. The head of the group was an Aushwitz escapee. Could never figure that one out.

    When you eat your next piece of meat you're all so far removed from the reality that you think it's OK. Unfortunately when abuse is hidden so is the safety of your meat. Downer cows, red meat, poultry and pork from animals with massive cancerous tumor are eaten by you. Those cow you eat are fed the floor droppings that are bagged at chicken farms and fed to the cows you eat because it's cheap and profits are everything to a company. Those droppings don't only contain poop and feathers but chickens are fed unregulated bone meals including from cows with mad cow diseas.
    Bon appetite.

    August 14, 2014 at 3:37 pm |
  10. sandcanyongal

    All some of you can comprehend is your meat prices and nothing else. The cruelty should be witnessed in person and you should each have to kill your own meat.

    August 14, 2014 at 2:03 am |
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