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.
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.