The Eat with Care blog

Writing about humane farming issues by Caroline Abels, founder of Humaneitarian. Your comments and feedback welcome. (All replies are screened and posted, if thoughtful and respectful.)

Going undercover in the American factory farm

November 15, 2012

Mary Beth Sweetland, who oversees undercover investigations for the Humane Society of the U.S., holds a photograph of the kind of industrial pig facility where her investigators often work.

She may be the only boss in America who will tell you during your job interview that you really, truly, almost certainly don’t want the job that she’s interviewing you for. Go home and think about it, she might say. Reconsider if you need. Imagine what you’ll be doing.

The job, she’ll tell you, will involve feces and dirt and animals too sick to move. It will be lonely, smelly, depressing, and exhausting. You’ll be spending weeks, perhaps months, inside an American factory farm, bearing witness to alleged acts of cruelty that you can do little, if anything, about. A hidden camera will be your only connection to the outside world, and she — your boss — will be your only confidante after you get off work, the only person who will understand if you break down, weep, or just want to quit.

Still want to be an undercover investigator for the Humane Society of the United States?  If so, Mary Beth Sweetland, the organization’s senior director of investigations, will start investigating you. From her Vermont home, she’ll make sure there’s very little trace of you on the Internet, that your name is not associated with any animal rights cause, and that you pass a background check. If she’s confident that the country’s largest animal welfare organization can trust you with a sensitive undercover investigation, you’ll be hired.

From the 2009 HSUS investigation at the Bushway facility; undercover workers revealed abuse of calves.

You’d then join a small band of gutsy risk takers trying to be the eyes and ears of the public inside agricultural facilities that are very much closed to the public. Right now, and at any given moment, a handful of HSUS investigators are working undercover — not only in factory farms but in puppy mills, laboratories, and zoos — and Mary Beth Sweetland is their den mother.

“I admire the heck out of them,” Sweetland recently told Humaneitarian. “I should probably tell them that more. I wish they could get the recognition that’s due them.”

Her investigators may be anonymous, but their work is not. Policy developments that have resulted from HSUS factory farm investigations are well-known in agricultural circles:

  • After mistreatment of cows was uncovered by a 2008 investigation at the Hallmark slaughter plant in northern California, downed beef cattle — cows too sick or injured to walk — were banned from the food supply; they are now euthanized instead.
  • When an undercover worker at the Bushway slaughterhouse in Vermont exposed mistreatment of young bull calves, the federal government approved a tentative ban on downer calves in the meat supply; HSUS hopes the rule will be finalized soon.
  • A number of undercover videos taken inside industrial pig facilities has led to a cascade of corporations announcing they will no longer sell pork raised in gestation crates.

In fact, the increase in major HSUS investigations over the past few years — as well as undercover investigations by other organizations such as Mercy for Animals and Compassion Over Killing — has coincided with an increase in “ag-gag” bills being proposed in various state legislatures. These bills, supported by large-scale agriculture, seek to make the photographing or videotaping of agricultural facilities a misdemeanor, or in some cases a felony. They have already passed in 3 states (Iowa, Missouri, and Utah) and more are expected to come up for a vote in 2013.

Though these bills may be a sign of HSUS’s success in undercover operations, the organization opposes them strongly because they could make it harder to recruit people to work undercover — applicants would face the threat of significant fines or prison time, on top of all the other hardships that come with an undercover job. As Matt Dominguez, the HSUS public policy manager for farm animals, puts it, referring to Mary Beth Sweetland, “These bills could potentially make her job obsolete.”


A downer cow in the HSUS 2008 undercover video of the Hallmark slaughter plant.

Grainy video clips of the dank and hidden places where most American meat is raised may appear on our Facebook feeds or television screens. We may watch them, we may not. But one person who never has a choice is Mary Beth Sweetland. Every day, she or her assistant must review the raw video footage and written log notes sent in by her investigators via postal mail or e-mail. She then selects video clips and notes that she thinks HSUS could build a legal case around and forwards them to lawyers and senior staff at HSUS’s Washington, D.C. headquarters.

When material is coming to her steadily, Sweetland can spend half her workday or more peering into the most wretched corners of factory farms. Of course, not all industrial farms harbor employees who could be brought up on animal cruelty charges, but Sweetland reviews footage from places that potentially do. She often wrestles with when to pull an investigator out of a facility because the cruelty has gotten so bad. (She prefers that they stay as long as it takes to get adequate evidence for a case.)

At age 58, she has five dogs who comfort her when the footage is searingly sad, but she has no other coping mechanism except the will to continue.

“I still cry after all these years,” she says. “I can’t help it. But it doesn’t make me want to give up. It makes me want to put someone into the next place.”

Her investigators rarely cry. Sweetland says they’re thick-skinned individuals who are willing to take the physical risk of working with aggressive, highly stressed animals, and the psychological risk of being busted by their employer. Some of them do it for their love of animals or commitment to the animal protection movement, others do it because they’re adventurers, while others do it because it’s a paid job. All of them apply for their farm jobs using their real name, and HSUS makes sure that everything about their employment is above board.

The investigators tend to be solitary folks, too, people who can live in the middle of nowhere (where factory farms tend to be) and who can tolerate being unable to chat with fellow workers about who they really are. Sidling up to the local dive bar may be the only thing investigators can do for companionship. Sweetland tries to talk with them every day.

Yet since she was put in charge of investigations four years ago, she says none of her investigators have taken up the HSUS on its offer of free counseling.

“Overall they are different breed of person,” Sweetland says. “I look at them as not having a missing compassion gene but just able to see it, document it, and move on.”

Egg-laying hens in a 2010 HSUS undercover operation.

The real workers in factory farms often can’t move on. Like most low-wage employees in rural areas, they may not have the means to leave a job, as demoralizing and disturbing as it may be. Sweetland has learned from her investigators that workers sometimes take out their personal frustration and anger on the animals they handle. Though not excusable, Sweetland says it’s understandable. She and her investigators often feel compassion for the very people who may face criminal charges as a result of their investigation.

“They have to be prosecuted,” Sweetland says. “There’s a law, they broke the law, and without prosecution there’s no deterrent.” But, she says, “Can you imagine the day in and day out hardships of their lives?  Hearing about some of their histories, you can tell the really bad apples from those who are just caught in a never-ending cycle of despair.”

Beyond animals and workers, there’s another victim of factory farms — the environment. Sweetland foresees expanding investigations by instructing her investigators to capture environmental crimes, in addition to animal abuses. “Traditionally this issue has been approached separately by environmental and animal welfare advocates,” she says. But if a facility begins illegally pumping its waste products into nearby ditches or streams, or feathers and dust begin falling from ventilation fans like snow, her investigators will be there to capture it.

A longtime vegan, Sweetland — who speaks in a compassionate, measured tone and prefers to deflect attention from herself onto her investigators — came to the HSUS after working for 18 years at PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals); for much of that time she was head of their investigations unit. Before that, she didn’t want to watch undercover videos of factory farms, but when she finally did, she decided to give up meat once and for all. She realizes that some people who watch undercover videos respond by switching to humanely raised meat instead, and she believes they are an integral part of the factory farm movement.

What would she say to that large swath of the American public who prefer to change the channel or click to a different website whenever a difficult factory farm video comes into view?

“I’d say that if they consider themselves a humane and compassionate person, they must force themselves to look, not just satisfy themselves with self-assurance that they know what it’s like. They don’t know what it’s like, until they see it with their own eyes.”

For more information on HSUS undercover work, go to  Mary Beth Sweetland may be contacted at

  1. Janet says:

    Thank you for this profoundly moving, important and (necessarily) disturbing article. It has made me even more committed to being a humaneitarian.
    Our easy-to-cover-up mental gymnastics regarding the cruel treatment of so many farm animals need constant push back from information like this lest we forget what’s going on. So thank you. And thank you to Mary Beth Sweetland and her investigators for their heroic work. Blessings on the great work of all of you.

    • Jennifer Trainer says:

      Thank you for your dedication and passion for those who don’t have a voice,
      Who cannot stand up for themselves! Thank you, thank you!

  2. Jan says:

    Great article – thanks!

  3. BP says:

    One of the most powerful tools in the movement by some of the bravest people around.

  4. A wonderfully written blog about some of the heros of animal rights and welfare groups. Thank you to Mary Beth Sweetland for her tireless work to improve the lot of farming livestock in the U.S.A. and to all her undercover teams – going where I could never go.
    And thanks to Caroline Abels for her great work in the field of farm animal welfare.

  5. Charlie Hunter says:

    Beautifully written, Carrie! An impressive article about an impressive woman doing incredibly difficult work. Godspeed to all.

  6. Dottie Nelson says:

    Great article! I wonder if any of her investigators ever go to places that auction and transport animals? That part of the animal-raising process has long bothered me as much as the factory farms.

  7. deborah evans says:

    Mary Beth Sweetland ought to be on the cover of Time Mag as Person of the Year – a hero in every sense of the word. How many ways can I say “thank you Mary Beth”? I raise old-fashioned pigs on pasture and in the woods and the sows are working mothers in the truest sense. What beauties with their babes in the woods, literally. Again, thank you, thank you, Mary Beth.

  8. catherine says:

    i have watched some of the most heartbreaking disgusting farm animal cruelty in my entire 53 yrs of my life. the one that really touches me and while i’m in tears typing this is the video of the newborn calves being cruelly slaughtered while they are still alive. as far as i’m concerned everyone that works in these slaughter places are murderers because they know that they can get away with it, not be charged, sit back and mock to their friends and family about how they killed innocent farm animals for the day cruelly. i might add, us humans complain that we dont like to be tasered by our police officers- well how the hell do you think our farm animals feel being prodded, kicked, throats slit while still alive. they feel pain, they have feelings no different then a human. i will no longer intend to eat meat. this has truely made me not ever touch or taste it ever again, and i will be showing my teenage children every video that i can find and i will guarantee that my children will go the same way. i say shut down these inhumane farm animal slaughterhouses altogether and leave these poor helpless animals alone. decent people can’t be hired to humanely put these poor helpless farm animals to the food chain so why kill them just to torture them before they even die. if you want to eat meat make sure you know where it came from and if it was killed humanely, but i think if the world was to go meatless and go to a vegan diet we all would live alot longer and be alot healthier. leave the poor innocent animals to live their lives as we are allowed to live ours. god bless our helpless farm animals.

  9. Cynthia whitten says:

    Until these animals are treated with more compassion I will denounce the human barbarians who mistreat them. heck, they treat human murderers better than this. shame on you!

  10. Tia White says:

    If I wouldn’t be in Switzerland I would sign up for a Job right now! I can’t believe that there are still humans who can agree these actions with their conscience!!!!
    Thanks a lot for the article, it definitely will influence my future acting and I’m planing to come to America and help against this cruelty.

  11. Julia Phelps says:

    Thank you for posting this article. Humans can be incredible cruel. I would encourage everyone to spread the word. Change is possible through education and persistence. Don’t just tell your friends. Inquire where you spend your money…the bottom line is what will affect these industries.

  12. This is an excellent blog posting. As an American vet living in Nairobi, Kenya, factory farming is limited here yet animal cruelty is not—though the cause is more one of ignorance than economics and greed. for example, one of the local myths is that if a donkey isn’t put to work, it will surely die! Dr. Chip, http://www.PetWhisperer.Net

  13. susan dotson says:


    • Caroline Abels says:

      Hi Susan – my understanding is that HSUS needs a substantial amount of video footage in order to build a legal case against places where abuse is rampant. By building a case, more future abuse can be prevented. -CA

  14. tami says:

    i could never be undercover, i would try to set all of the animals free, and beat those people who hurt them, i sign petitions and send letters to congress for helping these poor animals. I am a vegetarian and love animals… i would love to go on TV and tell people how these animals are treated and i bet allot of people would stand up to these farmers….. tami

  15. John says:

    Ghandi stated it well:A nation is known by the way it treats it’s animals-so true,and I add it should also be known for the brave people who try so hard to counter the sickness of abuse.God bless these real heroes with strength, safety,and SUCCESS.God bless the beasts and children. And EDUCATE the children so this vile issue can be eradicated in at least the next generation……

  16. Max Berry says:

    My name is Max, and I am a 17 year old animal rights activist. I stumbled across this article while finding sources for a research paper. The article itself is eye-opening, inspiring, and eloquently written. Although, I am greatly impressed by these comments. All of you have such loving and positive things to say! It’s releiving to see people speaking in congruence with their convictions, which are clearly derived from love. Thank you for caring and thank you for being amazing people! Keep fighting!

  17. Karen Eicholtz says:

    Every life is precious. To live is an incredible gift unless of course you happen to be an animal raised for food on a factory farm. If you are, you don’t live, you just exist. It is depressingly apparent that the public perception of factory farmed animals is one of “I don’t want to think about it.” or “They’re just animals for food. What’s the big deal?” or “It’s not like they’re people.” or “They’re just burgers or bacon or wings. Why should I care.”
    It is awful that the public seems to believe that if an animal is raised for food, it deserves less consideration than an animal who is a pet. Maybe if people kept cows, sheep, pigs, goats, poultry, etc., as pets, their attitudes would be dramatically less tolerant or accepting of the pain, misery, abuse, torture that factory farm animals endure every day of their lives (puppy mills notwithstanding). There is and will never be any happiness for these creatures. Animals are happy when they are living lives designed by their genetic code, IOW, as they have evolved to and were meant to. Take an animal out of its natural and evolutionarily designed “lifestyle” and you will stress the animal immensely. Man has prevented factory farm animals from having any semblance of a “normal” life; their lives are artificial being only allowed to exist by humans and warehoused in what is essentially storage facilities.
    Our food system is incredibly flawed. 30 % of the food produced in this country goes to waste. That means that 30 % of the animals raised and slaughtered for food died for no reason at all.
    Nature imposes a balance of all living things. Man assumes he can disrupt this balance to his own needs. And so, to feed the overpopulation of humans on this planet, man resorts to raising farm animals in the most miserable, disgusting, filthy, abusive conditions designed to generate cheap meat. Nature will get its way though because in order to force factory farm animals to live in these conditions, man is pumping antibiotics into these creatures in their daily diet (not just if or when they’re sick) which is causing resistant microbes to arise.
    What kind of society tolerates the blatant, cruel, miserable abuse of any living thing? Apparently ours.