The following is a summary of a conversation that took place on February 9, 2015 as part of our investigation of undercover investigations. Matt Rice spoke with Allison Smith, ACE’s Director of Research.
Matt’s role and background
Matt is the Director of Investigations at MFA, so he oversees all aspects of an investigation, from working with recruiters to recruit and train investigators, to being the point of contact for investigators in the field, to putting together campaign materials for the public release of the investigations. His main job is to coordinate with many people on all aspects of the investigations. MFA does employment-based investigations, so Matt helps investigators look for secondary employment at factory farms or slaughterhouses where they can conduct investigations. Once they have those jobs they send him notes and video footage daily; MFA investigations department staff review the footage in real time and categorize it. Matt, MFA’s legal team, and independent animal welfare experts then review relevant portions of the footage and evaluate whether what it shows is criminal abuse or standard industry practice (which is also abusive). When criminal abuse is identified, Matt works with MFA’s legal team to draft formal complaints and get them to appropriate law enforcement agencies. MFA’s investigation team also works to identify all the links in the facilities supply chain, from the farm to the point of sale for consumers, so MFA can work with companies in the supply chain to make animal welfare policy changes. Finally, Matt works with designers to build campaign websites, put together petitions on Change.org, develop press releases and other materials needed to show the public what was uncovered during the investigation.
Matt’s first job in the animal protection movement was with PETA. He worked there for about five years doing various public education campaigns. He toured around the country doing talks and demonstrations, put together footage from PETA’s undercover investigations so that it could be distributed to the public, and worked with the news media. He has also worked at Farm Sanctuary, both directly caring for the animals and educating the public about the plight of farmed animals. He has now been working at MFA for about 5 years, starting with running the New York office, then as Director of Operations, and now as Director of Investigations. As Director of Operations he was involved in the day-to-day work of the investigations department, so when the former Director of Investigations stepped down, he was the person most prepared to step into that role.
How sites are selected
MFA investigations are conducted at random. Investigators simply apply for jobs at farms and slaughterhouses and then go to work at the first place to hire them. Although where investigators get hired is random, there is still a lot of thought that goes into determining where investigators should apply and where they should not. For example, because MFA’s goal is to help as many animals as possible, and show the public how farmed animals are most commonly treated, investigators look for jobs at large farms or facilities connected with big companies in the animal agriculture industry that supply the majority of animal products to consumers.
Decisions are also made based on how likely it is a particular investigator will be hired into a certain job or industry. For instance, in certain areas it helps to be Spanish-speaking to get a job. In some industries, such as hatcheries, the workforce is almost entirely female. Some investigators have experience in the dairy industry, while others have experience in the egg industry. MFA tries to match investigators skills with the jobs they are applying for so that the investigators will fit in better at the facilities they work at.
They choose industries based on what will have the biggest impact for the largest number of animals, which is why they focus exclusively on farmed animals. Within that, they consider the sheer number of animals affected, which has led to a higher focus on poultry and eggs. They also look for low-hanging fruit, or inherently cruel industry practices that can be more easily ended through public exposure. For example, a lot of animal activists and retailers have pushed against extreme confinement systems like gestation crates on hog farms, and laws have been passed prohibiting them, and the industry itself is starting to phase them out. Even though sows represent a relatively small number of animals compared to chickens, an undercover investigation could really help put a nail in the coffin for that practice. As a result, some of their biggest focuses are extreme confinement systems like battery cages, gestation crates, and veal crates, as well as practices like tail docking without painkillers.
Within a state and an industry, investigators apply for jobs at as many large farms as they can. Then they go to work at the first suitable farm that hires them. If they were to focus on a single company and have an investigator try to get a job at a specific farm, the investigator might be in the field trying to get a job for months at a time, perhaps without success. They might have specific companies or farms they most want to investigate, but investigators also put in applications at other big farms or slaughterhouses while they’re in the area in order to make their time in the area better spent.
Incorporation into larger strategy
MFA sees their investigations as fitting into a larger strategy, both within MFA with the efforts of other groups within the animal protection movement. The gestation crate campaign is an example; MFA sees the work that HSUS and other groups are doing with different retailers and with suppliers like Smithfield to get commitments to phasing out gestation crates, and conversely the companies that haven’t made commitments, and try to focus their efforts on the latter. For example MFA did an investigation on a Tyson farm in Oklahoma because at the time Tyson was a holdout that hadn’t gotten rid of gestation crates. That investigation and the added pressure it produced, led Tyson to finally encourage their farms to move away from gestation crates.
They also look at what other groups are doing on the legislative front and try to work on issues where there is a lot of momentum. For example, they did investigations at egg farms in California leading up to the vote on Proposition 2. Their footage came out timed to coincide with the weeks leading up to the vote, so that voters would see it in the news and know more about the issues. They try to tie their investigations into what’s happening in the world generally and where investigations can shine a much needed light to help push for meaningful change.
How they package the video for release
As they put together a case, there are several variables. If they’ve identified any criminal acts, their first priority is to go to law enforcement. Often, MFA will then need to wait to release the findings of their investigations to the public in order to give law enforcement time to conduct their own investigation. Once they know when law enforcement is going to act, that gives them a timetable for other uses of the footage.
MFA also reaches out to mainstream media outlets that might be interested in covering the investigation. In addition to pitches to national media outlets, MFA plans press conferences in local media markets to maximize the amount of press coverage for each investigation. The more media coverage, the more people who learn about the issues. For example, with the investigation on the Tyson farm, they did a press conference in Oklahoma, because the farm was there, and a press conference in Little Rock, because the facility was connected to WalMart, which is based in Arkansas. If a celebrity narrates the video they put online, they might hold a press conference in Los Angeles and invite the celebrity to speak at it.
Mainstream media is not the only way that MFA distributes their work; they also use social media. They put together a website that hosts the video. For the video they put online they use analytics to decide what length of video will have the biggest impact. The layout of the website is also important; it needs to be easy to share on Facebook and Twitter. They have a celebrity coordinator who reaches out to their celebrity friends and asks them to retweet it, which helps build publicity. They put a petition about each investigation on Change.org and work with them to send an email about it to all of Change.org’s users whenever possible. They also develop photos with text that can be shared as memes on social media sites.
It’s a very coordinated rollout, both in order to reach as many people as possible and for the effect that has on any companies involved. When companies start getting calls from the media about an investigation and see the exposure the investigation is getting with their customers, that makes them much more willing to make animal welfare policy changes.
Once the investigation has been rolled out initially, the Education Department takes over the public outreach aspects; they may do some further targeting and promotion, but Matt isn’t responsible for it anymore. Nick Cooney would be the person to talk to about that. MFA’s corporate outreach department, led by Jaya Bhumitra, also works behind the scenes with companies connected to the investigation to help them put together meaningful animal welfare policies to address the problems uncovered in the investigation.
Resource and staff requirements
MFA keeps the number of investigators that they have confidential so that industry doesn’t know exactly how many people they have in the field at a time. Investigators are paid while looking for secondary employment and while actually working on a farm, but also often take considerable time off between investigations (during which MFA doesn’t pay them).
Other than investigators, there’s a lot of crossover between MFA’s other departments and their work on investigations. For instance, their General Counsel heads her own department and also spends quite a bit of time on legal aspects of the investigations, like writing legal complaints and contacting district attorneys.
Matt, two Researchers (who work on tasks like understanding supply chains), a video editor, and the General Counsel are the five people most involved in investigations on a day-to-day basis, aside from the investigators themselves. The video editor and the General Counsel each work on other projects and spend about half their time on investigations.
MFA releases almost all investigations they do; the situation in which someone gets on a farm but they don’t release an investigation is when someone gets a job at a facility that does not allow them to see how animals are being treated. For example, if someone gets a job packing eggs they may not be in a position to see the hens who lay the eggs. In such cases, Matt may choose to have the investigator quit and move on to other potential jobs.
In cases where investigators are able to document how animals are treated, they release the investigation, although sometimes multiple investigations get combined and released together. For example, investigations at multiple Foster Farms locations were combined for a single release to the public. Last year they released 16 investigations, which was high; in the three years prior to that they completed five investigations per year (at that time they had about ⅓-½ the number of investigators they have now).
Investigations take on average a total of 3-4 months from the time the investigator goes into the field until the investigation is released publicly. Several steps of the process take variable amounts of time. Investigators spend an average of about a month looking for a job. Sometimes they get hired on the first day, but sometimes they look for two or more months before finding a job. Once they’re in the facility, the first task is to figure out how to get recording equipment into the facility, how to deal with poor lighting, and other variables. Once they start getting usable footage everyday, they continue the investigation for an average of 3-4 weeks. The goal is to thoroughly document all aspects of the operation, and ensure they document all individuals who are involved in abuse, including owners and managers, so that certain individuals who commit acts of criminal animal abuse don’t slip through the cracks and get away.
Researchers at MFA have a solid base on animal welfare issues and animal rights. Investigators need to have a good understanding of animal welfare issues, but their job is to be as unbiased as possible. Their job is to just gather information and bring facts to the discussion rather than opinions. MFA prefers investigators who see themselves as “the eyes and the ears” of the public, or as undercover journalists.
MFA pays investigators while they’re working and provides for their food, lodging and transportation. MFA provides very specialized camera equipment for investigators; it’s very technical and a complete set of equipment costs about $4,000-5,000. Sometimes they have specialized cameras made for a job, which adds to the cost.
Difficulties investigations encounter
MFA investigators use their real names and real social security numbers when applying for jobs, and they do the work that is assigned to them to the best of their ability, while of course following all laws. Investigations have to be planned carefully because they’re affected by a variety of state laws and MFA is very careful about following all applicable laws. MFA is able to conduct investigations in most states, but must be careful to conduct investigations in accordance with different state laws.
The animal agriculture industry works hard to keep investigators out of their facilities and has a variety of tactics they use to identify investigators, including sharing information with each other about investigators who have worked at their facilities. The industry even has conferences to discuss ways to stop people from filming their operations. MFA keeps apprised of the industry’s efforts to stop investigation and is typically able to circumvent them.
These are also physically and emotionally demanding jobs, so they have to make sure that investigators are capable of doing hard manual labor in gruelling conditions and also have the emotional fortitude to deal with witnessing animal abuse daily. A very small percentage of people are physically and emotionally capable of working as an investigator.
MFA has to make sure that any criminal complaints they make are beyond reproach and will be taken seriously by law enforcement. Investigators do detailed logs and notes every day so no one can complain that they are relying on memory to put together what happened too long after the fact. They have a very comprehensive chain of custody for the video footage so they can demonstrate to law enforcement that they’re providing raw footage that hasn’t been manipulated in any way. This maximizes the chances that when they meet with law enforcement, they’re taken seriously.
However, for political reasons or personal bias, law enforcement agencies sometimes do not take animal welfare issues seriously and may choose not to investigate or prosecute animal abusers, even when the crimes have been well documented. To minimize the chances of this happening, MFA must be very comprehensive with what they bring to the meeting, including footage and notes, the investigator, their evaluation of animal law, and statements from animal welfare experts. They’ve gotten compliments from law enforcement that meeting with them is like meeting with their own detectives because of the thoroughness of the evidence they bring.
Media coverage has gotten easier in one sense; the media has figured out that coverage of undercover investigations is an exciting news story that people want to know about. Ten or more years ago, mainstream media outlets often wouldn’t cover animal cruelty issues, but that has started to change. More news outlets have figured out that people do care about animals and consequently MFA investigations get more coverage now.
Ironically, the efforts by the factory farming industry to pass ag-gag laws and stop people from seeing how they treat animals has actually contributed to even more media coverage for MFA. Reporters rightly see ag-gag legislation as a violation of free speech and freedom of the press and have editorialized against it. Major media outlets now, more often than ever before, reach out to MFA eager to cover investigations and expose the efforts of the industry to restrict the public’s ability to know about how animals are treated on factory farms.
There are also challenges in making connections from a farm to the point of purchase. Most people have never heard of the farms they investigate, but if they can connect a farm to a company like McDonald’s that everyone has heard of, the investigation becomes much more relevant to the media and the public, as well as letting MFA start talks with the company to use their purchasing power to bring about change. Making those connections is often very difficult, because the animal agriculture industry is very secretive and often doesn’t want people to know anything about their supply chains. MFA does a lot of research to figure out what the supply chain connections are and to prove them beyond any doubt, so companies can’t claim they don’t buy from farms they do buy from.
Impact of an investigation
Almost all the work MFA does builds off of the investigations. Not all the investigations have the same or similar effects; for example, if an investigation does not find any illegal behavior, it obviously would not lead to any prosecutions. Unfortunately, because there are no federal laws protecting animals during their lives on factory farms and most states exclude farmed animals from many anti-cruelty laws, even the cruelest practices uncovered during an investigation may not be illegal. Even when illegal activity is not documented, investigations are still useful their corporate, legislative, and educational work. The goal is always to try to find ways for each other pillar of MFA’s organization – corporate outreach, education, and legal advocacy – to use the investigation to maximum effect.
MFA evaluates the reach of an investigation, including the media coverage it gets, how many people see the videos, and how many people sign the petitions. They also consider how many animals they help through related corporate outreach victories. Finally, they consider it positive to set legal precedent that animals matter by obtaining convictions for animal cruelty.
On occasion MFA is able to rescue animals during the course of an investigation and send them to sanctuaries. This doesn’t compare to the size of the other effects of investigations, but obviously it’s important for the individual animals.
Investigations bringing in resources or attention
A few investigations that have been exceptional in the attention they attracted:
- The Hy-Line Hatchery investigation several years ago was the first investigation at a hatchery for chickens. They were grinding up 150,000 live male chicks per day, and that was shocking; people outside the industry didn’t know that it was happening and that it was legal. That got a massive amount of media coverage and within two days of release became the second most viral video on the internet at the time.
- The investigation at Sparboe Egg Farms, one of the largest egg producers in the country, got one of the largest mainstream media responses they’ve had. They were able to give the exclusive to ABC News, who broke it on World News Tonight, 20/20, and Good Morning America. Because it got coverage on those major national platforms it also got a lot of international media coverage.
- The investigation at Wiese Brothers Farms led to one of their largest corporate outreach victories. This was a dairy farm that they connected to DiGiorno Pizza, which is owned by Nestle, the largest food company in the world. Nestle got such a large media and public response that they decided to work with MFA to implement an animal welfare policy, and the policy they implemented is probably the most comprehensive animal welfare policy ever implemented by a company. They announced a policy change in 2014 that will apply to every farm that supplies them, in 90 countries.
- The Butterball investigation in 2011 led to a raid of the facility by police, the arrest and conviction of multiple workers, the arrest and conviction of a Department of Agriculture official who was trying to interfere with the police investigation, and the first ever felony conviction in the US related to factory farmed poultry.
- They did investigations in California that helped pass Proposition 2.
- They did an investigation at Conklin Dairy in Ohio that the Ohio Farm Bureau credited with leading them to the table to negotiate what had been called the most comprehensive animal welfare legislative change by one state at any time. MFA worked closely with HSUS on that.
Undercover Investigations generally
Matt believes that because there’s so much at stake with undercover investigations and because the industry is trying so hard to prevent and discredit investigations, only groups that are going to do a very good job should attempt undercover investigations at all. If an investigation team doesn’t have the ability to do the work well, it could make problems for other groups; if someone breaks a law and gets convicted, the industry will try to use that to paint all investigators as criminals.
You need to have good attorneys who know the laws and can advise on how to stay on the right side of the law. Attorneys also need to be able to make sure that if you get evidence of animal abuse, you can use that evidence to secure convictions against the people involved.
In terms of presentation, including public speaking, release of the investigation, the website, etc, how things are presented is extremely important. People need to take it seriously, so it has to be well-designed and sophisticated, allowing people to focus on the message and not on sloppy presentation. Professional video editing skills are important. Corporate outreach is also very important and really needs to be done by people who can fit in while engaged in a boardroom. These activists need to be able to speak to corporate executives in terms of things they care about, like profits and how things impact their brand.
Investigators themselves need to be physically strong, able to witness cruelty repeatedly, and able to think on their feet when necessary. It’s also useful to have access to animal welfare experts and veterinarians who can interpret what is happening in videos from a scientific standpoint.
Place of undercover investigations relative to other advocacy
Matt sees every area of farmed animal advocacy as relying on undercover investigations to some degree. Without undercover investigations we’d have to rely on the industry to tell us about how animals are treated. They have a very one-sided view of it, so we need undercover investigations to provide us with more accurate information for legal and corporate advocacy and with images and video that can be used in education.
Undercover investigations rely on legal advocacy to keep the legal climate such that they are possible to conduct without breaking any laws. They also rely on the research that’s been done about what is persuasive and helps people change the most. MFA has tailored the messaging around their undercover investigations as they’ve learned that people are more responsive to the stories of individual animals than to messages that emphasize that billions of animals are treated this way.
Is there a limit for the number of investigations that are effective?
Matt believes there is point of diminishing returns for investigations where the cost of doing investigations begins to outweigh the positive outcomes in terms of public education, corporate policy changes, and legal advocacy. MFA is careful to evaluate the costs and benefits of investigations compared to other forms of animal advocacy to ensure it is spending time and resources as effectively as possible.
What changes might affect undercover investigations in the future?
MFA pays close attention to the legal climate to ensure investigative efforts remain legal. The industry is always looking for new ways to identify investigators and prevent equipment from getting into the facilities. Organizations have to continually evolve in order to keep up with the changes in the environment that they’re dealing with.
Other people to talk to
Nathan Runkle at MFA would have the biggest institutional sense of investigations there. Nick Cooney is the most involved in data analysis and ensuring that they do more of the things that have a big impact and less of the things that don’t have a big impact.