This article and accompanying video include graphic images some readers may find disturbing.
Iowa’s largest pork producer, Iowa Select Farms, has been using a cruel and excruciating method to kill thousands of pigs that have become commercially worthless due to the coronavirus pandemic. As is true for so much of what the agricultural industry does, the company’s gruesome extermination of sentient animals that are emotionally complex and intelligent has been conducted entirely out of public view.
But The Intercept, as the result of an investigation by animal rights group Direct Action Everywhere, or DxE, has obtained video footage of the procedure and the resulting carnage that occurred at one of the company’s facilities in mid-May. Additionally, a whistleblower employed by Iowa Select has provided extensive details to The Intercept about the extraordinary methods now being employed to kill pigs — agonizingly and over the course of many hours — in increasingly large numbers.
What prompted both the DxE investigation and the whistleblower to come forward is Iowa Select’s recent adoption of the mass-extermination method known as “ventilation shutdown,” or VSD. Under this method, pigs at the company’s rural Grundy County facility are being “depopulated,” using the industry’s jargon, by sealing off all airways to their barns and inserting steam into them, intensifying the heat and humidity inside and leaving them to die overnight. Most pigs — though not all — die after hours of suffering from a combination of being suffocated and roasted to death. The recordings obtained by The Intercept include audio of the piercing cries of pigs as they succumb. The recordings also show that some pigs manage to survive the ordeal — but, on the morning after, Iowa Select dispatches armed workers to enter the barn to survey the mound of pig corpses for any lingering signs of life, and then use their bolt guns to extinguish any survivors.
The whistleblower told The Intercept that when Iowa Select began using the ventilation shutdown method in late April, it first experimented on a smaller group of hogs by just shutting off the airways into their barn and turning up the heat. Other employees told similar stories to DxE investigators. After those experiments failed — the oxygen-deprived pigs survived over the course of many hours, the whistleblower said, due to a failure to increase the heat to fatal levels — Iowa Select decided to begin injecting steam into the barns, to accelerate the accumulation of heat and humidity. That steam is visible in the video provided to The Intercept and is the culmination, at least thus far, of several attempts to perfect VSD. The whistleblower explained the process:
They shut the pit pans off, shut the ventilation fans off, and heat up the building. That’s what the plan is. It’s horrific as it is. It was first used on test cull sows: those were first given the VSD treatment. The first day they shut off all the fans and turned the heat up and the hottest they could get the building was 120 degrees. After four to five hours, none of the animals were dead. There was an attempt to induce steam into the building, along with the heat and the ventilation shutdown, and that is how they ultimately perfected their VSD operation. Every time they’ve been euthanizing the animals, it’s been a test in a sense. Piglets were killed off in a barn with gas generators.
The profit model of the agricultural industry depends, of course, on raising animals in ways that cause suffering for years and then ultimately killing them to convert them into meat. Though food lines are growing around the United States, the coronavirus pandemic has prompted factory farms to exterminate animals en masse because of the erosion of their commercial supply chains. Numerous slaughterhouses have been forced to close due to Covid-19 outbreaks among their insufficiently protected employees, and this has only increased the amount of “excess” animals the industry regards as worthless and disposable.
Rather than caring for these animals until pre-pandemic demand returns, or converting them into discounted or donated food for millions of people who have suddenly become unemployed and food insecure by caring for the animals until slaughterhouse capacity can accommodate them, many companies, including Iowa Select, have evidently made decisions driven exclusively by a goal to maximize profits. In sum, they are slaughtering these now “worthless” animals in vast numbers as fast as possible, using extermination methods that cause sustained suffering and agony, to avoid the costs of keeping them alive.
During the pandemic, mass slaughter has become commonplace at factory farms, even though many of these farms are not where large-scale killing is meant to occur. In normal times, the animals would be transported to slaughterhouses and killed there in ways that, at least in theory, minimize the cruelty by accelerating the death process. But mass killings that radically deviate from the normal slaughterhouse process are now rampant in this industry and are expected to increase. “At least two million animals have already reportedly been culled on farm, and that number is expected to rise,” The Guardian reported on April 29. Officials in Iowa “have warned that producers could be forced to kill 700,000 pigs a week due to meat plant slowdowns or closures.”
This mass extermination requires the use of life-extinguishing procedures which, prior to the pandemic, were not typically employed by this industry. And those procedures are anything but quick, painless, or humane, as this four-minute video produced by The Intercept demonstrates:
The Horrors of Ventilation Shutdown
The decision to kill healthy animals in unusually large numbers has led many factory farms to resort to methods that are novel and gruesome. The quickest and most merciful way to induce death for so many animals at once — shooting them in the head one by one — would be too emotionally traumatizing even for factory farm employees who are accustomed to raising animals in order to bring them to slaughter. Even when standard industrial methods of slaughter are used, factory farm work has been demonstrated to entail serious mental health harms for workers.
But the method of ventilation shutdown now being used at Iowa Select causes pigs to endure great anguish over many hours on their way to death. On the hidden audio recorders placed in the barn as part of DxE’s investigation, sustained screams of distress and agony are audible as the heat fills the building while the air supply is shut down. The deployment of armed workers to shoot any pigs who are clinging to life in the morning is designed to ensure 100 percent mortality. But the number of pigs in the barn is so great that standard methods to confirm death, such as pulse-checking, are not performed, making it quite possible that some pigs survived the ventilator shutdown, were not killed by bolt guns, and are therefore buried alive or crushed by the bulldozers that haul away the corpses.
Iowa Select has not responded to numerous questions submitted by The Intercept. But upon discovering that investigators from DxE had obtained video footage from inside one of its barns showing the suffering of pigs during this process, the company tried to preempt this reporting by admitting its use of VSD in an article published last week by a pork industry newsletter. “The thought of euthanizing entire herds is devastating,” a company spokesperson told the newsletter. “Sadly, Iowa Select has been forced to make this heartbreaking decision for some of its herd.”
To another industry outlet, the company “announced in a statement that they have been forced to euthanize some of its herd,” emphasizing not the pain endured by the animals that were exterminated, but the suffering of company executives: “‘It’s been hard on us to come to those decisions,’ says Pete Thomas, DVM at Iowa Select Farms.”
The video obtained during DxE’s investigation and provided to The Intercept viscerally conveys the inhumane cruelty of this extermination method. The video cameras placed inside the barn, along with audio recorders, were activated shortly after DxE investigators learned that a ventilation shutdown was scheduled for a particular night in mid-May.
Those video and audio devices recorded the start of the killing process, beginning with the sealing off of all airways, and continued all night as the pigs suffered and died. The devices continued recording through to the next morning, when Iowa Select employees entered the barn, finished the extermination process by shooting the pigs who managed to survive and then removed the corpses using bulldozers. The audio recorders document the noises of anguish emitted by the pigs during the procedure, as well as the sound of guns finishing off survivors. It also records discussions by Iowa Select Farms about what they were doing, followed by their eventual discovery that hidden cameras had captured everything that was done.
In an interview with The Intercept, the whistleblowing employee of Iowa Select, who originally wanted to speak on the record but changed their mind due to fear of reprisals from the industry that dominates their state, described the abuses that prompted them to reach out to DxE even prior to the pandemic. The whistleblower recounted how their pre-Covid-19 anguish escalated significantly over the last several months, and how they were pushed over the limits of their conscience by witnessing the unparalleled horrors of their employer’s use of ventilation shutdowns.
Prior to the outbreak of the coronavirus, the whistleblower decided to covertly communicate with DxE investigators after reading a study published by the group on the inhumane and often illegal confinement of factory farm pigs in which they linger for years with no adequate space even to turn around. The conditions in which the Iowa Select pigs were kept — with nowhere near enough room to be considered humane by the whistleblower — was increasingly weighing on their conscience. The whistleblower explained to The Intercept that a “massive increase” in pig production over 2019 led to the already cramped space for pigs becoming even smaller. Despite being around farms for decades, the whistleblower could hardly bear to see what was happening. “It’s immoral, hard to see every single day,” they said.
Months ago, the whistleblower even began conducting research into regulatory requirements, after observing that the pigs were being stored in ways that appeared to them to be “double what is permitted” by applicable standards. But they quickly determined that the state would have little interest in taking action.
Indeed, the agricultural industry has long used its economic dominance to influence both political parties and the legislative process to enact laws and regulations with little purpose other than to maximize their profit margins and conceal from the public the realities of how they operate. The industry succeeded even to the point of inducing the enactment of now-notorious and constitutionally invalidated “ag-gag” laws, designed to punish various forms of transparency intended to show the public the realities of what takes place inside industrial farms. A short documentary produced by The Intercept last year revealed pervasive abuses in Iowa’s meat industry and how those abuses are protected and enabled by industry-dominated politicians who receive substantial donations and dutifully subject themselves to industry lobbyist control.
The whistleblower’s growing concerns about the ethics of this industry “quickly evolved” as the coronavirus pandemic began seriously affecting factory farms. The pandemic caused “massive backups,” the whistleblower said. As market gluts and slaughterhouse shutdowns increased, the whistleblower began to suspect that “massive kill-offs of healthy pigs” were being planned by the company: Pigs, in the whistleblower’s words, “are now being killed for no reason.”
This realization of imminent mass extermination using methods that cause death slowly and painfully elevated the crisis of conscience to an entirely new level. “The weight of that was pretty heavy, to be honest,” the whistleblower said. Over the course of the last several months, the whistleblower began seeing Iowa Select implement new protocols and schedules for the transportation of pigs, reviewing documents describing new procedures, and hearing from other facility employees about plans for ventilation shutdown. That was when the whistleblower concluded that the reality of killing healthy pigs en masse was coming “very much sooner rather than later.”
The Iowa Select Farms whistleblower is far from being a coastal animal rights activist or vegan fanatic ideologically opposed to all animal agriculture. The source is virtually the opposite of that industry-peddled caricature: someone who has been around farming, including industrial agriculture, for their entire life. They are someone fully accustomed to the raising and slaughtering of animals for food, often under repressive and inhumane conditions. And yet, even with all of that mental conditioning and cultural immersion, the whistleblower was reaching the breaking point for what their conscience could withstand even before the Covid-19 pandemic. Once the pandemic ushered in all-new moral atrocities, they could no longer morally justify staying silent and complicit about an industry that has long provided them and much of their community with employment.
Rather than becoming inured to these abuses as the result of daily exposure, the whistleblower was becoming increasingly sickened by them. While this “is an industry I’ve grown up around,” the whistleblower said, “I wasn’t becoming numb to it. It was affecting me more and more every day: feeling the compassion and empathy for these animals that we were working with every day, then beginning to question” the ethics and morality of industrial practices.
As The Intercept has often documented, pigs are social animals at least as intelligent and emotionally complex as dogs, who experience the full range of emotions from life: joy, playfulness, love, connection, pain, loss, suffering, and grief. But at least prior to the coronavirus pandemic, even with all the immense suffering factory farm animals endure — bred by industrial agriculture to live in extreme deprivation, which often includes being confined for years in cages so small they can never even turn around, living in festering disease, and being genetically modified to be more profitable to the point that their own distorted bodies cause constant pain — the method of slaughter that finally ends their suffering is typically (though not always) free of sustained, enduring pain and agony.
But the pandemic, while having no effect on the inherent moral value of these sentient beings, has stripped them of their commercial worth. And that has resulted in the industry using extermination methods outside of the standard processes, producing new ethical and moral horrors in an industry that was already suffused with them.
Branding Versus Reality
Iowa Select Farms brands itself as an ethical, animal-friendly company, and its website repeatedly emphasizes the company’s ethical concern for its animals. The company functions, according to the site, “with homegrown Iowa values. We believe in doing the right thing every day, operating with character and integrity and being stewards of our resources.”
The company proclaims that it “believe[s] by taking care of our animals, people, environment and communities we will achieve our mission of producing pork, responsibly.” The motto that adorns the front page of its website is “Producing Pork Responsibly” and features bucolic images and videos touting the company’s compassion to its employees and animals alike, including one page headlined, “A True Passion for Animals Runs Deep.”
But the company is a money-making machine. The nation’s fourth-largest pork producer, selling more than 5 million hogs each year principally to Tyson Foods and the Brazilian firm JBS, it has been privately owned by Jeff and Deb Hanson since its 1992 founding.
Upon learning of imminent exposure of its extermination methods due to its discovery of hidden cameras, the company is trying to spin the story in its favor. One of the industry newsletters that the company spoke with dutifully painted the DxE investigators as the villains — its headline was “Animal Activists Attack Iowa Select Farms” — while downplaying or even justifying the extermination method used. The company’s spokesperson repeated its us-as-the-real-victims narrative to a different industry newsletter: “The thought of euthanizing entire herds is devastating. Sadly, Iowa Select has been forced to make this heartbreaking decision for some of its herd.”
When forced to admit their mass extermination program, the factory farm industry insists on a pleasant-sounding euphemism — “euthanizing” — to create the impression that their animals are being gently put to sleep in socially familiar and ethically acceptable ways. This term, by design, evokes the way an elderly family dog suffering from a painful and incurable disease is treated when brought to the neighborhood veterinarian’s office and administered a chemical that quickly and painlessly brings about unconsciousness in order to relieve the animal of suffering, all for the good of the beloved family pet. This euphemism similarly triggers humanitarian sentiments by invoking the increasingly accepted right of humans to legally obtain the assistance of doctors to enable humane and painless forms of suicide when they are suffering from incurable, degenerative diseases.
But in the context of ventilation shutdown, that term radically distorts the mortifying reality of what is being done at these factory farms — both because of the extreme, sustained suffering experienced by the animals subjected to it and because “euthanasia” implies the merciful killing of hopelessly sick and suffering living beings. But the pigs that are being mass exterminated are not sick at all but perfectly well; what they lack is not health but commercial value.
To defend its ventilation shutdown methods, Iowa Select claims, in the words of one of the industry newsletters, that “veterinarians and production well-being professionals are overseeing the process to ensure accordance with the American Association of Swine Veterinarians and American Veterinary Medical Association.” But that claim is questionable in several respects.
The veterinarians used by this industry may be dependent upon the very factory farms whose corporate conduct they are charged with “overseeing” and could thus be incentivized to sanction those practices, similar to the way one would not rely on scientists working for the fossil fuel industry as a primary authority for assessing the environmental soundness of Exxon Mobil’s conduct. The Iowa-based American Association of Swine Veterinarians receives ample financial support from corporations with involvement in the industrial agriculture. The AASV did not respond to inquiries from The Intercept about its relationship to the pork industry or to its role in Iowa Select’s use of ventilation shutdown.
On May 19 — the same day Iowa Select discovered that DxE investigators had obtained video footage of ventilation shutdown in one of its barns — the AASV board of directors published a statement on Covid-19 and swine producers that said: “If depopulation must be considered, veterinarians should reference the American Veterinary Medical Association’s Guidelines for the Depopulation of Animals.” That manual describes the proper ethical protocols for numerous “depopulation” methods, dividing them into “Preferred” methods and ones that are only “Permitted in Constrained Circumstances.”
Ventilation shutdown is classified by those guidelines not as preferred but as “permitted in constrained circumstances.” The AASV’s May 19 statement proclaimed that with regard to depopulation procedures, “priority should be given to those methods classified as ‘Preferred’ but the circumstances surrounding the Covid-19 processing disruption may require the use of methods classified as ‘Permitted in Constrained Circumstances.'” In effect, the AASV, at exactly the time Iowa Select discovered that its mass extermination of pigs had been recorded by animal rights investigators, publicly decreed that ventilation shutdown could be justified given the exigencies of the coronavirus pandemic.
But both the video footage obtained by The Intercept and the testimonial from the Iowa Select whistleblower reveal that, contrary to Iowa Select’s claims, not everything is being done in compliance with the “depopulation” guidelines codified by the American Veterinary Medical Association’s Guidelines for the Depopulation of Animals, the manual which AASV suggests should be used for extermination programs justified in the name of Covid-19.
That manual provides that “depopulation methods,” when carried out in the optimal manner, should “result in rapid loss of consciousness and the associated loss of brain function.” Avoiding suffering for the animals is a primary metric to determine a method’s ethical propriety. According to the manual: “Physical methods must be skillfully executed to ensure a quick and humane death because failure to do so can cause significant stress, distress, and pain.”
The manual states that the most efficient way to avoid pain and suffering is sudden death, entailing the direct, trained application of violent force to each animal targeted for extermination: “Physical methods that destroy or render nonfunctional the brain regions responsible for cortical integration (eg, gunshot, captive bolt, cerebral induction of epileptiform activity in the brain [eg, electric stunning], blunt force cranial trauma, and maceration) produce instantaneous unconsciousness.”
The manual explicitly emphasizes that the more employees are required to administer direct violence — necessary for sudden death — the greater the risk to them of emotional and mental health injury: “Physical methods usually require a more direct association of the operator with the animals, which can be offensive to, and upsetting for, the operator.” That emotional injury can extend far beyond the facility employees themselves. As the manual explains: “Those making the decision to depopulate must be mindful of the emotional impact of the procedure on owners of the animals, laboratory technicians, conservation managers, emergency response personnel, veterinarians, and the community at large.”
While the manual approves of the use of ventilation shutdown for mass killing in certain limited circumstances — only when other, more merciful and ethical procedures are unavailable — the description makes clear how horrifying it is, and how much suffering it entails, even when done in accordance with the most rigid protocols, because the animals do not die instantly but over time from a combination of suffocation and heat. Worse, 100 percent mortality for the animals subjected to it is difficult to achieve:
Circumstances that have resulted in VSD of modern swine facilities have resulted in the complete or partial depopulation of pigs housed in affected facilities. When ventilation systems fail, “pigs may suffer distress or death by what is commonly called ‘suffocation’ implying lack of oxygen or excessive CO2.” In realistic terms, death may result from any combination of excessive temperature, CO2, or toxic gases from slurry or manure below the barn….
Ventilation shutdown involves closing up the house, shutting inlets, and turning off the fans. Body heat from the herd raises the temperature in the house until animals die from hyperthermia. Numerous variables may make the time to death of 100% of animals in the barn subject to a range of times. The age and size of the barn; the insulation of the barn; the ventilation system; the ability to adequately seal fans, louvres, doors, and windows; and the number and size of animals in the barn can make achieving temperature goals problematic…. In the United Kingdom, a case study involving swine that experienced a ventilation failure event showed that 100% mortality was not achieved within that particular barn design, even after 16 hours.
The manual states without qualification that “failure to achieve 100% mortality in depopulation is unacceptable.” Yet, beyond other apparent deviations from the manual on at least some occasions — including a failure to introduce enough heat into the barn to kill most or all of the oxygen-deprived pigs — Iowa Select’s process, as demonstrated by both the video at the barn and the whistleblower’s revelations, has at least on some occasions not achieved 100 percent mortality, a failure the manual classifies as “unacceptable.”
When this source first spoke to The Intercept, they indicated that they wanted to speak on the record about what they had been seeing and why they found it so unconscionable. They wanted to put their name and face on these denunciations. Ultimately, however, the whistleblower decided that they could not subject themself and their family to the almost-certain extreme repercussions of denouncing an industry of unparalleled power in their state, as well as risking their employment in the middle of a job-killing pandemic.
“Coming forward would cause a lot of pain and anguish with friends and family,” the whistleblower said. “This industry encompasses everything that is home. Everything around is here based off this very industry, and with that, it’s seeing friends, friends’ parents and kids, all seeing you as the bad guy. This industry has done a very good job with its PR campaign: No matter what, before anything is said, you’re going to be the bad guy.”
Iowa Select’s success in immediately shifting blame away from itself and onto the DxE investigators who were about to expose their cruel and inhumane practices — doing so literally on the same day the company discovered that its ventilation shutdown horror show had been recorded on video — illustrates how well-grounded the whistleblower’s fears are.
Even opting for anonymity to reveal these industry secrets, as the source well knows, is a risky proposition in an extremely well-funded and powerful industry with a demonstrated intent and ability to punish anyone who shines a light on what they do. Along with the DxE investigators who work in a legal regime where the criminals are deemed to be not those who impose systemic cruelty on animals but those who expose it, the whistleblower here is aware of the risks they have taken by coming forward, but told The Intercept that the mandates of conscience compelled the decision to do so.
Watch the new episode of SYSTEM UPDATE about this article, including interviews with the lead DxE investigator and the Iowa Select Farms whistleblower, on The Intercept’s YouTube channel at 7:00 p.m. ET.