Prosecutors have dropped charges against Matt Johnson, an animal rights activist who brilliantly exposed the cruel killing of pigs at two Iowa pork facilities in 2020. By Marina Bolotnikova at The Guardian.
When animal rights activist Matt Johnson last made national news, he was in disguise. He appeared on Fox Business in December 2020, sporting a buzz cut and button-down (much different from his usual casual attire) and posed as the CEO of Smithfield Foods. The pork giant he claimed to be representing had factory farms that were “petri dishes for new diseases”, he told the news anchor. After the segment went viral online, Fox realized their mistake: “It appears we have been punked,” host Maria Bartiromo announced, apologizing to Smithfield, which called the interview “a complete hoax”.
Johnson’s antics, and his seeming lack of fear of the consequences, have made him a formidable opponent of the meat industry. But while the Fox incident offered a moment of levity, today, Johnson makes the news for something far more serious. He has just been let off for criminal charges that could have sent him to prison for up to eight years. After conducting an undercover exposé of conditions at the pork company Iowa Select Farms in May 2020, his actions put him on the line for burglary and planting recording devices. Another charge, for trespassing at a food operation (an offense created by an Iowa ag-gag law), was added in 2021.
While these specific charges against Johnson can’t be brought again, they may not be his last. His work as an organizer with the animal rights group Direct Action Everywhere (DxE) involves high-profile, high-risk actions like secretly recording factory farms and rescuing animals. Since farm animals are legally property and have no rights and almost no protection from suffering, removing them is usually treated as burglary, no different from stealing jewelry or someone’s wallet. In the last decade, many state “ag-gag” laws have sought to further criminalize such activism.
The conditions that brought Johnson, an Iowa native now based in California, to Iowa Select Farms facilities were particularly cruel, according to DxE – and the outrage that followed his exposé suggests the public were similarly alarmed. As Covid was tearing through US slaughterhouses, Johnson had been tipped off by an Iowa Select truck driver about conditions at the company’s facilities.
Across the meat industry, workers were falling ill, meatpacking capacity was significantly reduced, and farms were overloaded with animals and looking for ways to dispose of them. Johnson was made aware of a practice called “ventilation shutdown”, being used by Iowa Select to mass exterminate pigs: the animals were packed into sealed barns and essentially cooked to death by heaters and steam generators.
In undercover footage captured by Johnson in May 2020, which was published by the Intercept, the pigs can be heard shrieking in distress. These revelations immediately made headlines and sparked a PR crisis for Iowa Select, which stopped practicing ventilation shutdown after it was brought to light – a rare and solid win for animal rights activists. “Matt’s investigation of ventilation shutdown is probably the most important [factory farm] investigation in more than a decade,” said Justin Marceau, an animal law scholar and professor at the University of Denver.
Matt Johnson conducted an undercover exposé of cruel practices used to mass exterminate pigs at Iowa Select Farms facilities