photographs in illustration by mercy for animals, 2; Tetra images/Getty Images Video in opener courtesy of Mercy for Animals. Video editing by Max Tiberi

A small band of animal rights activists have been infiltrating the factory farms where animals are turned into meet under the most horrific circumstances. Now the agribusiness giants are trying to crush them. by Paul Solotaroff | December 10th, 2013

Sarah – let’s call her that for this story, though it’s neither the name her parents gave her nor the one she currently uses undercover – is a tall, fair woman in her midtwenties who’s pretty in a stock, anonymous way, as if she’d purposely scrubbed her face and frame of distinguishing characteristics. Like anyone who’s spent much time working farms, she’s functionally built through the thighs and trunk, herding pregnant hogs who weigh triple what she does into chutes to birth their litters and hefting buckets of dead piglets down quarter-mile alleys to where they’re later processed. It’s backbreaking labor, nine-hour days in stifling barns in Wyoming, and no training could prepare her for the sensory assault of 10,000 pigs in close quarters: the stench of their shit, piled three feet high in the slanted trenches below; the blood on sows’ snouts cut by cages so tight they can’t turn around or lie sideways; the racking cries of broken-legged pigs, hauled into alleys by dead-eyed workers and left there to die of exposure. It’s the worst job she or anyone else has had, but Sarah isn’t grousing about the conditions. She’s too busy waging war on the hogs’ behalf.

We’re sitting across the couch from a second undercover, a former military serviceman we’ll call Juan, in the open-plan parlor of an A-frame cottage just north of the Vermont-New York border. The house belongs to their boss, Mary Beth Sweetland, who is the investigative director for the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and who has brought them here, first, to tell their stories, then to investigate a nearby calf auction site. Sweetland trains and runs the dozen or so people engaged in the parlous business of infiltrating farms and documenting the abuse done to livestock herds by the country’s agri-giants, as well as slaughterhouses and livestock auctions. Given the scale of the business – each year, an estimated 9 billion broiler chickens, 113 million pigs, 33 million cows and 250 million turkeys are raised for our consumption in dark, filthy, pestilent barns – it’s unfair to call this a guerrilla operation, for fear of offending outgunned guerrillas. But what Juan and Sarah do with their hidden cams and body mics is deliver knockdown blows to the Big Meat cabal, showing videos of the animals’ living conditions to packed rooms of reporters and film crews. In many cases, these findings trigger arrests and/or shutdowns of processing plants, though the real heat put to the offending firms is the demand for change from their scandalized clients – fast-food giants and big-box retailers. “We’ve had a major impact in the five or six years we’ve been doing these operations,” says Sarah.

if you haven’t been in a hen plant, you don’t know what hell is,” says an activist. “chicken shit is piled six feet high, and your lungs burn like you took a torch to 'em.

In its scrutiny of Big Meat – a cartel of corporations that have swallowed family farms, moved the animals indoors to prison-style plants in the middle of rural nowhere, far from the gaze of nervous consumers, and bred their livestock to and past exhaustion – the Humane Society (and outfits like PETA and Mercy for Animals) is performing a service that the federal government can’t, or won’t, render: keeping an eye on the way American meat is grown. That’s rightfully the job of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, but the agency is so short-staffed that it typically only sends inspectors out to slaughterhouses, where they check a small sample of pigs, cows and sheep before they’re put to death. That hour before her end is usually the only time a pig sees a government rep; from the moment she’s born, she’s on her own, spending four or five years in a tiny crate and kept perpetually pregnant and made sick from breathing in her own waste while fed food packed with growth-promoting drugs, and sometimes even garbage. (The word “garbage” isn’t proverbial: Mixed in with the grain can be an assortment of trash, including ground glass from light bulbs, used syringes and the crushed testicles of their young. Very little on a factory farm is ever discarded.) Save the occasional staffer who becomes disgruntled and uploads pictures of factory crimes on Facebook, undercover activists like Juan and Sarah are our only lens into what goes on in those plants – and soon, if Big Meat has its way, we’ll not have even them to set us straight. A wave of new laws, almost entirely drafted by lawmakers and lobbyists and referred to as “Ag-Gag” bills, are making it illegal to take a farm job undercover; apply for a farm job without disclosing a background as a journalist or animal-rights activist; and hold evidence of animal abuse past 24 to 48 hours before turning it over to authorities. Since it takes weeks or sometimes months to develop a case – and since groups like HSUS have pledged not to break the law – these bills are stopping watchdogs in their tracks and giving factory farmers free rein behind their walls.

Three states – Iowa, Utah and Missouri – have passed such measures in the past two years, and more are likely to follow. “That’s why we’ve come forward: People need to fight while there’s still time,” says Sarah. “We’re not trying to end meat or start a panic. But there’s a decent way to raise animals for food, and this is the farthest thing from it.”

The Dirty Truth
About Cheap Meat

Factory farming has become one of the filthiest industries in America – producing an ocean of fecal matter every year

  • Amount of
    factory-farm animal
    waste generated in the
    U.S. each year:

  • Distance
    airborne ammonia – a
    toxic gas released by
    decomposing animal waste –
    can travel before hitting soil
    or water (causing fish kills):

    UP to
    300 miles
  • Number of
    pounds of fecal
    matter animals
    raised for food in the
    U.S. produce per

  • Amount of
    the Earth’s total
    land mass used for
    animal grazing:

  • Number of
    times more
    waste produced
    than human:

  • Minimum
    number of
    diseases that can
    be transferred from
    farm-animal waste
    to humans:

  • Number of
    land acres
    devoted to U.S.
    animal production:

    528 million
  • Miles of river
    across 22 U.S.
    states reporting
    polluted waterways
    caused by farm-animal


Swipe for more facts

Carla Gottgens/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Two springs ago, Sarah hired on with a breeding barn called Wyoming Premium Farms, a sprawling monolith in flyspeck Wheatland, population 3,641. At her plant, which was about as long as four football fields and connected to a separate birthing barn, she was one of 12 to 15 workers tending nearly 1,000 pigs each, which is par for the course in these places. Employee turnover was high and the morale rock-bottom; the animals paid for it in blood. “The workers were so stressed that they beat the sows during the weaning process and moved ’em back to the breeding barn,” Sarah says. “Some moms would resist and these guys would just pounce, three or four kicking and punching a sow at once. My first day there, I saw a sow break her leg trying to get back to her young. They shoved her into an alley and left her for a week before someone put a bolt in her head.”

“Was it that old guy, Steve, who beat the sow?” says Juan. He’d been working at a Premium barn nearby, where he spent his days extracting beakers of semen from boars and his nights washing the stench off his skin.

“No, he abused piglets,” she says of Steve Perry, a tattooed man who seemed to take pleasure in abusing newborn pigs – flinging them around by their legs, boasting of stabbing a sow with a pen and ripping the ear off another. He was one of nine workers charged with animal cruelty in connection with the case that Sarah built. All lost their positions at the farm; five paid modest fines and were placed on probation for six months. But Perry entered a plea of not guilty, and later was employed at the barn where Juan found work. Eventually, he pleaded out to two counts of animal cruelty and was slapped with a small fine and a short jail stint. Meanwhile, Sarah found evidence that eventually helped to out Tyson Foods as a Premium client.

“And what happened to Tyson – did they pay a price, either in fines or closures?” I ask.

“Oh, no – the fat cats always get a walk,” says Sweetland, who’s been monitoring our talk from her desk in the loft above. “But we got ’em where it hurts, in the pocketbook.” Tyson Foods, the largest meat processor in the country, denied a link to Wyoming Premium, then copped to owning a company that did business with those barns. Tyson spun the matter further by adding, through a spokesman, that it had cut ties with Premium. Nonetheless, karmic justice was rendered when the cost of chicken feed helped cause Tyson’s net income to plunge 42 percent in the second quarter of this year.

The yearly slaughter by the numbers:

9 Billion broiler chickens

113 Million pigs

33 Million cows

250 Million turkeys

Swipe for more numbers
By the numbers photos courtesy of Mercy for Animals

You are a typical egg-laying chicken in America, and this is your life: You’re trapped in a cage with six to eight hens, each given less than a square foot of space to roost and sleep in. The cages rise five high and run thousands long in a warehouse without windows or skylights. You see and smell nothing from the moment of your birth but the shit coming down through the open slats of the battery cages above you. It coats your feathers and becomes a second skin; by the time you’re plucked from your cage for slaughter, your bones and wings breaking in the grasp of harried workers, you look less like a hen than an oil-spill duck, blackened by years of droppings. Your eyes tear constantly from the fumes of your own urine, you wheeze and gasp like a retired miner, and you’re beset every second of the waking day by mice and plaguelike clouds of flies. If you’re a broiler chicken (raised specifically for meat), thanks to “meat science” and its chemical levers – growth hormones, antibiotics and genetically engineered feed – you weigh at least double what you would in the wild, but lack the muscle even to waddle, let alone fly. Like egg-laying hens – your comrades in suffering – you get sick young with late-life woes: heart disease, osteoporosis. It’s frankly a mercy you’ll be dead and processed in 45 days, yanked from your floor pen and slaughtered. The egg-layers you leave behind will grind on for another two years or so (or until they’re “spent” and can’t produce any more eggs), then they’re killed too.

You’re a typical milk cow in America, and this is your life. You are raised, like pigs, on a concrete slab in a stall barely bigger than your body. There, you never touch grass or see sun till the day you’re herded to slaughter. A cocktail of drugs, combined with breeding decisions, has grossly distended the size of your udder such that you’d trip over it if allowed to graze, which of course you’re not. Your hooves have rotted black from standing in your own shit, your teats are scarred, swollen and leaking pus – infected by mastitis – and you’re sick to the verge of total collapse from giving nearly 22,000 pounds of milk a year. (That’s more than double what your forebears produced just 40 years ago.) By the time they’ve used you up (typically at four years of age), your bones are so brittle that they often snap beneath you and leave you unable to get off the ground on your own power.

Brittle bones aren’t the only reason cows become nonambulatory. A “downer” cow is an animal unable to stand on its own due to injury or illness; downers are deemed unfit by the federal government for human consumption. They are three times likelier to harbor a potentially deadly strain of E. coli, and at higher risk of carrying salmonella bacteria and transmitting bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease, as it’s quaintly known. But before you’re classified as a downer, Big Meat will use every trick up its wizard’s sleeve to keep you on your feet. Workers hit you in the eyes with a cattle prod, or in the groin, if you like that better; stick a fire hose down your throat to get you to stand, a ploy inspired by those who brought you Abu Ghraib; and, if all else fails, they hoist you with a forklift and load you onto a flatbed bound for slaughter.

In 2007, the Humane Society caught Westland/Hallmark red-handed, and just over two months later it busted the Southern California rendering plant for dumping 37 million pounds of downed-cow beef into the national “low cost or free” school-lunch program. No, it wasn’t enough merely to pawn toxic meat on an unsuspecting public; the company sold it to the Department of Agriculture for more than $156 million, which approved it for poor kids’ meal trays. That scandal shut the plant down, put Westland/Hallmark out of business and started riots in South Korea, where protesters – fearing exposure to mad cow disease – fought a pending deal to reverse an almost five-year ban on American beef. The total tab for that outrage remains a mystery, but is thought to be in the billions.

Watch undercover videos that reveal the horrific conditions in which factory-farmed livestock are typically raised.

photos by Lew Robertson/food pix/getty images; Georgia Glynn Smith/photolibrary/getty images; WIN-Initiative/getty images; David Bishop/food pix/getty images; omer sukru goksu/getty images, 2; Dorling Kindersley/getty images; iStockphoto/getty images.


Helpless and Abused

Watch hidden-camera footage, taken by activists, of workers kicking and attacking animals under their care at factory farms. The brutal conditions of these giant meat factories foster environments where this treatment seems normal.

Courtesy of Mercy for Animals

Would you treat a dog this way?

Pigs are among the most intelligent farm animals – comparable to dogs – but the common practice on factory farms is to confine breeding sows in tiny metal and concrete pens. As this video shows, they spend much of their miserable lives barely able to move.

Courtesy of The Humane Society of the United States

Inside the egg factory

Egg-laying chickens on industrial farms are trapped in cages with six to eight birds and are given less than a foot of space to live in. Hidden footage taken by activists exposes the grim conditions these birds endure.

Courtesy of The Humane Society of the United States

Dairy’s dark secret

The typical dairy cow on a factory farm produces nearly 22,000 pounds of milk a year – more than double­ what its forebears did 40 years ago. They never graze; their hooves have rotted from standing in their own filth. This video captures the bleak existence of the modern Bessie.

Courtesy of Peta

Eventually, two Hallmark workers pleaded guilty to violations of criminal animal-cruelty laws, “but no one in power was charged,” says Wayne Pacelle, the film-star-handsome president and CEO of the Humane Society, the largest and most powerful nonprofit guardian of animal rights in America. Since being promoted to chief executive in 2004, Pacelle has more than doubled the Humane Society’s budget to $181 million, grown the number of active donors to more than 1 million, and aggressively broadened its investigative beat, shutting down puppy mills, exotic-animal traders and dogfighting rings in rural hollows, where the blood sport has deep roots.

But Public Enemy Number One on Pacelle’s list are the dozen or so companies that gamed the system and usurped the means of production in America. Fifty years ago, before the coming of giants, this country’s cows, pigs and poultry were mostly raised outdoors and sold, for whatever the spot market bore, at livestock auctions for cash. Then Tyson, Perdue and others set about gobbling up feed lots, van lines, slaughterhouses and hatcheries, ran them, top-down, via corporate committees, and turned farmers into wage slaves on their lands, owners of nothing but the mortgages on their barns. With the craven consent of the Department of Agriculture (then, as now, a revolving door for executives in the big-farm sector), they devoured smaller companies, corraled much of the nation’s livestock and began treating animals as production units, not living, feeling creatures with basic rights. Their motto: maximum profit for minimum input, meaning far fewer workers tending vastly larger stocks, and animals confined in tight, dark spaces for the ease and convenience of staff.

Percent by which more factory-farmed hogs than people live in Minnesota:


Ranking of pigs on Animal Planet’s Top 10 Smartest Animals list: 6th

Age at which humans are as smart as pigs: 3

Dimensions of the metal crates breeding sows are confined to for life: 7 feet by 2 feet

Courtesy of mercy for animals

Alas, cows and pigs aren’t built to live indoors; they get sick and depressed, go after one another and kill or eat their young in despair. But some companies hired scientists to find solutions, and, voilà, hatched a set of cheap fixes. They dumped antibiotics into the grain they fed the stock; created two-foot-by-seven-foot gestation crates so sows couldn’t bite one another’s tails or crush their young by lying down; and kept the animals fat and sad so they wouldn’t fight back when led to slaughter. To watch a cow die in a rendering plant is an ecstasy of slow-mo horror. They’re stunned by a steel bolt to the head, strung upside down by a metal shackle (sometimes, if the steel bolt doesn’t do its job, they’re strung up while still awake and in agony), then slashed in the throat to bleed out there and sent down a line where their limbs are lopped off as they pass. It’s reverse engineering, a disassembly line – and it has the full approval of Congress. These are the terms of the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act, which is the only piece of federal legislation that applies to the treatment of livestock. When it comes to raising animals, there are no rules besides the ones companies foist on their farmers. If you want to perform your version of “euthanasia” by hanging downer pigs execution-style from a forklift – as an Ohio farmer was fond of doing till being filmed by an HSUS agent (a judge later found him not guilty, ruling that Ohio has no standards forbidding the strangulation and hanging of farm animals) – by all means do so without fearing a knock from jackbooted federal cops. If you want to mislead the public, as Perdue is accused in a class-action lawsuit of doing with labeling its Harvestland brand of chickens as “humanely raised,” feel free, knowing that no regulator will call bullshit on your claims.

Instead of standing up for consumer rights – bringing antitrust suits against hegemonic firms, pursuing price-fixing crimes in the dairy aisle, passing robust standards to keep unsafe meat out of stores – the feds have merrily partnered with Big Meat, granting giant subsidies for the three main ingredients in animal feed, acting as its agent in overseas sales, and slagging HSUS agents for “withholding evidence” as they collect it to build their cases. “If we got any of the consideration these companies get, the deck wouldn’t be stacked against livestock,” says Pacelle. “But these are the terms, and we’re winning the fight. Voters in farming states are flocking to us.”

Number of pounds of milk produced in 1972 by individual dairy cows:


Number of pounds of milk produced in 2012 by individual dairy cows:





Helpless and Abused

Watch hidden-camera footage, taken by activists, of workers kicking and attacking animals under their care at factory farms. The brutal conditions of these giant meat factories foster environments where this treatment seems normal.

Courtesy of Mercy for Animals

In 2008, Pacelle put HSUS’s muscle behind an initiative called Proposition 2. It mandated that California, the biggest ag state in the country, ban the cruel confinement of egg-laying hens, pregnant sows and veal calves inside crates and cages by 2015. The measure was fought bitterly by Big Meat and its proxies in the fire-breathing rump of the Republican Party; the top players in the egg and poultry industries donated $5 million in a single day to slander and distort the terms of Prop 2. “ ‘It’s unsafe, un-American, anti-small business’ – copy straight from the playbook of ALEC,” says Pacelle, referring to the insidious business cabal that gave us Stand Your Ground gun laws in the South, transparently racist voter-ID bills and the infamous SB 1070 in Arizona, which authorized police to arrest on sight any immigrants not carrying papers. Pacelle trotted out his own big guns, mustering Oprah Winfrey and Ellen De­Generes to advocate on live TV for humane farming. That fall, voters turned in a landslide verdict, passing the Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act by a margin of almost two to one. It was the start of a runaway win streak for livestock. States from Maine to Oregon enacted similar legislation, giant retailers Costco and Walmart shifted to cage-free eggs for their private labels, while chains like McDonald’s, Burger King and dozens more announced the phase-out of all pork products from pigs bred in gestation crates.

at one nebraska slaughterhouse,
one cow killed every
12 seconds
. . . cows killed per hour 300
. . . cows killed daily 2,500

But far from caving in, Big Meat has doubled down. It’s spending vast piles of money from fat-cat donors on “Ag-Gag” amendments that it sends to legislators. In Utah, for instance, it’s now a class-B misdemeanor to film or photograph farm abuses, even if you’re parked on a public road and filming through the window of your car. And though other states have killed such bills on the grounds that they defile the First Amendment, ag lobbyists and their Tea Party clients in Congress keep cooking up new versions. They’ve also declared jihad on the Humane Society, putting its president and his mission in their cross hairs.

“The NRA, Forrest Lucas [the car-lube tycoon who owns Lucas Cattle] and paid henchmen like Rick Berman [a notorious flack for Big Tobacco] publish one lie after another about what we do,” says Pacelle. “They say we’re out to end hunting, we’re out to end farming, we’re here to make people wear hemp shoes. Well, no, we’re not PETA or Mercy for Animals, but we do stand up for livestock – the 8 billion chickens raised in filthy cages, the tens of millions of pigs in tiny crates. Somebody has to speak out for them.”

When your first investigation triggers criminal charges and shames a giant like Tyson into a tortured denial, it can be hard to come up with a suitable second act. In Sarah’s case, however, it’s been impossible. As it’s illegal to use an alias when applying for work, she’s had to identify herself to farmers, and has been turned away at every plant. “It’s temporary, I hope,” she says, scanning the roadside for the barn of Cambridge Valley Livestock Market in New York. “When new cases crack, my name’ll push down. Regardless, there’s a lot for me to do.”

In the interim, she has posed as a prospective buyer at puppy mills in the South, taking part in a group sting that rescued 72 dogs from a dark, fetid compound in North Carolina; helped document the torture done – as standard practice – to the feet of Tennessee walking horses; and tried, without luck, to build criminal cases against exotic-animal owners in Nevada. There, as in states like the Carolinas, Alabama and three others, there are virtually no laws barring crackpot collectors from amassing personal zoos. “It’s hard to get in close to those people,” says Sarah. “They’re creepy and paranoid around strangers. One guy would only meet me and agree to talk if I got into his car. He had scars all over his face from handling monkeys. Eventually, he let me hold his baby chimp.”

Average lifespan of a chicken
5 to 8 years . . . Average lifespan of a factory-farm egg-layer
2 years

Courtesy of mercy for animals

She has also, for several months, been going to beef auctions to rescue baby cows from slaughter. Called “bob veal” by farmers, these male offspring of Holstein milk cows are functionally worthless on the open market. They don’t grow sturdy like Angus or pump vats of fresh milk, so they are dumped, within a week or two of their birth, at sparsely attended fire sales in rural towns, where they’re unloaded for dog food or the cheapest cuts of chuck to local packing plants. These calves, by the way, are the lucky ones. The select few plump enough to be raised for veal will be chained up for months in wooden crates, force-fed a diet of milk substitute and antibiotics, and prevented from moving a foot in any direction so that their flesh turns butter-knife soft. Three decades of efforts to curb this barbarity have netted bans in just seven states, though the American Veal Association voted to phase out crates on all farms by 2017. Consumers, meanwhile, have voted with their feet, walking away in droves from veal raised in boxes about the size of a small child’s coffin. There are, it seems, some limits on our taste for torture.

We pull off the road and up a dirt track to the loading dock at Cambridge Valley Livestock Market. An 18-wheeler is filling with calves bought for $40 a head. Hundreds more are milling in the muddy barn, many so young they drag umbilical cords through the piss-stained straw and shit. Responding to their bleats, Sarah opens a gate and ushers me into a pen. Instantly, a dozen or more calves engulf us, suckling our knees and sleeves. Since being ripped from their mothers, they’ve barely been fed and will nurse anything resembling a teat. They find one, of sorts, in my leather jacket. Its worn-in hide must taste like love.

Cows, like pigs, are social creatures; their babies are even more so. They nuzzle strangers, groan with pleasure when you pet them, and attach without complaint to callous minders. Their sweetness gets them nowhere at auctions, however; the men and women working here smack them with boards and kick them in the haunches to move them forward. “So common,” Sarah mutters as she leans against the rail, filming with a hidden, dime-size camera. “Seen guys punch them, stick cattle prods in their eyes, bragging, ‘I totally got her in the eyeball!’ It’s what happens when you do this long enough. They’re not your fellow creatures, they’re just trouble.”

Number of states accounting for 49 percent of all American red meat produced last year:


(Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas, Texas)

I’ve Seen guys punch cows, stick cattle prods in their eyes, bragging, ‘I got her in the eyeball!’ ” recalls one undercover activist.

Sarah, who grew up in a West Coast household busy with pets of all kinds – birds, hamsters, a dog, a ferret, even a python – got a BS in zoology, interned at a big-cat rescue and worked for a while at a zoo. But conflicted about caring for captive animals, she moved on to a sanctuary for rescued primates: spider monkeys, marmosets and such, recovered from private owners and research labs. Their treatment in these places – “trapped in cages their whole lives, never seeing another animal” – inflamed her to come out from behind the fence and put herself at risk for their sake. “I didn’t know this even existed as a job, but was willing to leave everything – my house, my friends, family, whatever – and live out of a suitcase as someone else,” she says. “It’s some hairy shit, going into these barns, a girl around all these guys who’re cruel to pigs.” She was also wired up, asking lots of questions and trying to build a case against their bosses. Luckily, she wasn’t outed till after she quit, but lived in fear that her concern for sows would tip staffers off to her. “If you do your job right, you could close the plant down and put 20, 30 families out of work,” she says. “That’s why I wouldn’t go drink with them, which it seemed they did, like, every minute they were off.”

Back inside the barn, we walk the pens freely; the auction is so short-staffed that Sarah’s colleague Juan is hired to herd sold calves onto trucks. With no one around to stop her, Sarah slips through a gate and kneels beside a calf that can’t get up. Its velveteen eyes are wet but blank; it barely stirs when jostled by other calves. “He got sick and gave up,” says Sarah, smoothing his hide with the calloused flat of a hand. “This is the second one I’ve seen, and I’ll bet there are more.”

And so it goes with farmers who gave up farming to become cruel jailers of their stock. “I saw it firsthand when I worked upstate – it’s like they hate their own animals for having feelings,” says Cody Carlson, an animal-rights activist who left investigations to go to law school. “I had a job at a barn with this sick-fuck boss who was proud of the stuff he did to cows. One day, we’re doing repairs on a gate in the barn and a couple of cows stroll over to watch us work. Well, one grazes him with her snout, just to be playful, and he smashes her in the face with his wrench. I also got him bragging about past assaults, like tying a cow to a fence and taking turns beating her, getting the other guys to work her over.”

Carlson’s secretly recorded footage, compiled over more than a month, triggered a cruelty indictment and cost the dairy a major buyer. The takedown, in 2008, was Carlson’s first assignment. Hired out of college by Kroll Advisory Solutions to gather business data, he left to find work at a nonprofit firm devoted to social justice. Neither the Polaris Project nor the Environmental Investigation Agency called back, but Mercy for Animals did. After several weeks of training, he hired on at Willet, a giant dairy in Locke, New York, that churned out 40,000 gallons of milk a day. So damning was his footage of standard factory-farming practice – chopping the tails off calves without anesthesia; gouging the horns off their heads with hot branding irons, also without anesthesia; punching cows, kicking calves, beating desperately sick downers – that Nightline ran it on national TV, confronting Willet’s CEO on camera. “Our animals are critically important to our well-being, so we work hard to treat them well,” droned Lyndon Odell of the 5,000 cows standing in lagoons of their own shit. Shown tape of the tortured calves, and pressed on whether a cow feels pain, he rolled his shoulders and mumbled, “I guess I can’t speak for the cow.” It bears saying here that nothing would have come from the tape if left to the whims of Jon Budelmann, the Cayuga County DA. “We approached him with our evidence and he told us to fuck off – he wasn’t going to take on Big Dairy,” says Carlson. “It was only after we went to the media with the tape that he got off his ass and brought charges.” (Budelmann later cleared Willet of any wrongdoing, telling the Syracuse Post-Standard that while Willet’s practices might seem harsh to consumers, they’re “not currently illegal in New York state.”)

This is all too common in livestock cases. There are laws in every state barring cruelty to house pets, but almost none that safeguard farm animals. To the extent that prosecutors can bring charges, they’re typically misdemeanors that call for small fines and a ban on taking farm jobs in the future. “Despite everything we know about animals now – that they think, they feel, they form connections – we still treat them worse than dirt,” says HSUS’s Sweetland. “The law is way behind the science, but we’re starting to make gains. Look at what happened in New York.” After Carlson’s tape aired, New York State Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal proposed a law against docking, or cutting the tails off, calves, a practice as pointless as it is despicable. Three years later, the bill is still pending in the Agriculture committee.

But Carlson, a lean, handsome blond of 30 who recently passed the bar, was just getting warmed up. He moved on, in the fall of ’09, to the Humane Society and took a series of jobs at hen factories in Iowa, working for Rose Acre Farms and Rembrandt Foods, the second- and third-largest producers of eggs in the United States. What he saw there beggared the dairy-barn horrors: dozens of poorly vented hangar-size plants, each one housing hundreds of thousands of birds in stacked cages the size of microwave ovens. The hens, stuffed seven to 10 in a cage, trampled each other, vying for space. Carlson, the sole attendant for 300,000 creatures, spent four or five hours a day pulling corpses from cages while trying not to become one himself. “If you haven’t been in a hen plant, you don’t know what hell is,” he says. “This gust of ammonia and urine stench hits you when you open the door, there’s chicken shit piled up six feet high before they tractor it out with Bobcats, and your nose and lungs burn like you took a torch to ’em.” Mice, flies and feces carpeted the tiny cages, mummified birds shared space with live ones, and their eggs rolled onto conveyor belts that ran 24 hours a day. “This wasn’t some mom-and-pop – this was 10 million hens,” Carlson says. “Their eggs are in every market you go into.” Amazingly, no indictments sprang from Carlson’s tapes: This was customary industry practice that broke no laws. But four months later, the FDA swooped in. It busted several Iowa hen farms whose vile conditions spawned a salmonella outbreak in 23 states, triggering the largest egg recall in recent U.S. history. Neither Rose Acre Farms nor Rembrandt Foods were among the factories cited.

Average space per bird in the wire battery cage that 95 percent of egg-laying hens in factory farms call home:

67 square inches

Dimensions of a standard-size sheet of letter paper:

93.5 square inches

Number of pounds of red meat produced last year in the United States:

49.6 billion

Wherever you stand on eating animals,” says an activist, “I think we agree that making
their lives hell is
too high a price for cheap food.

Carlson lasted nearly two years in the field, including a stint at a hog farm in Pennsylvania. There, he split days between “processing” new piglets – snipping their tails and testicles off without a numbing agent, and shooting them full of pharmaceuticals to boost already ravaged immune systems – and tossing countless dead ones into a bucket loader that dumped them in a compost pile. “Each job was the gnarliest thing I’d seen. I thought I’d get past it, but they kept shocking me,” he says, picking at the last of his hummus sandwich. “But I feel like I made my mark out there, put myself in the conversation we’re starting to have about how and what we eat. Wherever you stand on the issue of eating animals, I think we agree that making their lives hell is too high a price for cheap food.”

Ever since the Fifties, when Secretary of Agriculture Ezra Taft Benson told American farmers to “get big or get out,” and his assistant, Earl Butz, later Richard Nixon’s Ag secretary, exhorted them to plant single crops from fence to fence and mass-produce animals like cows and chickens as if they were Fords and Chevys, we’ve dined out on the idea that nature is our dray horse, to be treated as we see fit. But the economies of scale that brought us pink slime and fast-food patties (not to mention an obesity epidemic) are built on a trap-door assumption: that the resources used to grow these delights will be there as long as we like. “Industrial meat will price itself to death – the things it depends on are dying,” says Fred Kirschenmann, director emeritus and Distinguished Fellow of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University. His landmark book, Cultivating an Ecological Conscience: Essays From a Farmer Philosopher, was premised on decades of running a midsize farm on organic methods in North Dakota. “Water is running short, especially in cattle states. Fuel prices are soaring past what farmers can pay, and the two key minerals they use to fertilize are mined now in only four countries. A paradigm shift is coming in the next two decades, to a more natural, and regional, food system.”

Kirschenmann and others aren’t waiting around for the die-off of old ideas. They’re putting their money where their mouths and hearts are, into pilot farms that replenish the land and the animals it sustains. Kirschenmann is board president of the Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture, an extraordinary nonprofit just a half-hour drive from midtown Manhattan. Sitting on 80 verdant acres deeded by the Rockefeller family, the farm raises 80,000 pounds of meat a year without pesticides, fertilizer or drugs, produces about 22,000 dozen eggs and 500 pounds of honey annually, and boasts the best restaurant in Westchester County, the impossible-to-get-into Blue Hill at Stone Barns. Now nine years old, Stone Barns hosts flocks of paying visitors five days a week, educates busloads of schoolkids to become “food citizens,” and will train about 1,000 new farmers this year to grow and sell food sustainably.

“We want to repopulate the farm community with smart, serious people who do it right,” says Kirschenmann at the bottom of a sloping paddock in which a dozen or so Angus, their hides like spit-shined boots, munch grass in a chorus-line formation. “As of 2007, 70 percent of our food came from less than 200,000 farms.” But with energy costs rising and other resources ebbing, the country will have to grow its meat and produce closer to home, which ideally will mean a return to small and midsize local farms. “By 2040, we’ll have 40 million people producing food in the U.S.,” says Kirschenmann. This may lead to regional “food hubs” like the ones in Fresno, California, where area farmers are working together to supply the majority of food for the community.

The things Industrial meat depends on are dying,” says one expert. “water is running
short, fuel prices are soaring. A paradigm shift is coming to a more natural food system.

We amble uphill, to a sprawl of hens who huddle for shade under open-bottomed huts. “We call these eggmobiles,” says Craig Haney, the farm’s livestock director. “We move them every day, so the manure is spread evenly across the field.” He picks up a hen that blinks against the glare but calmly lets us stroke its silky coat. “Our only inputs are sun, rain and compost – and everything gets recycled, including feathers.” The eggs these hens lay, with deep-gold yolks, are vastly better-tasting than the factory kind. Though they’re not inexpensive – $6 a dozen – Haney can’t keep them in stock. “We move 6,300 a week and could sell 30 percent more if we had more hens. But this feels like the right balance of bird to pasture, and the right mix of animals all around.”

Besides steers, hens and broilers, he keeps pigs and sheep and two types of turkeys, all of them harvested, after a sociable adolescence, at their ideal dressing weight. The point of such variety is its synergy: The cows chew the grass down low enough for hens, then often, though not always, the pigs come in and root the soil, prepping it for its next coat of sod. “We’ll always need animals for food,” says Kirschenmann. “Without them, we’d have no manure. The question is, how many can the landscape bear before it, and the system, fall apart?”

At the top of the hill, we come to a wallow, where about 30 or so pigs are napping. The young ones snore in inch-deep mud like stoners after lunch. Directly across the road, a mammoth boar rises when he sees us coming. He lumbers over, either to say hello or to shoo us away from his harem; in a hutch, three sows are sleeping soundly. “He’s a pretty busy guy,” says Haney proudly, stepping over the wire to rub his back. The boar, its tan bristles caked in dirt, shuts its eyes and submits. He’ll likely live to a ripe old age, and the sows he mates with will be put down humanely and butchered for sausage at Blue Hill at Stone Barns. The farm’s pork will cost more than the pork at Key Food, but that isn’t the worst thing in the world. Maybe we’ll eat less of it and cook it at home, instead of gorging our kids on fast food. Like the livestock we raise, we’ve grown fat and sick, dependent on a bitches’ brew of drugs. We’ve got a choice to make, and it only means our lives: We can treat our animals better and heal our bodies in the bargain, or become the last of the planet’s finite resources gone hopelessly to seed.

research and additional reporting by Nita Rao

Jasper White/the image bank/getty images