We caught up with MFA's former undercover investigator, Cody Carlson, whose work was recently featured in the Atlantic, to get the inside scoop about his undercover work.
In my teens, I read a book about the famous McLibel trial in England--where McDonald's sued two UK activists for distributing leaflets that criticized McDonald's support for factory farming. I remember being shocked--not just to learn the truth about where my food came from, but also at how successful these industries had been at keeping people like me from finding out. I went vegetarian then and there. A few years later, I was at a punk show where I saw "Meet Your Meat" playing at one of the band's merchandise tables. Actually seeing what was happening on these factory farms had an even bigger impact on me. I went vegan and started leafleting at my college campus.
How did you get started as an undercover investigator?
Shortly after college, I was a researcher at a corporate investigations firm in New York. One night, I saw a Mercy For Animals' investigation of a battery-cage egg farm on the news. The next morning, I wrote to MFA to offer help with background research in future investigations. When Nathan Runkle called me back to suggest that I instead come on board as an undercover agent, I had a hard time saying no. I was nervous, obviously, but it sounded so much more rewarding than what I was doing at the time.
What was daily life like as an undercover investigator?
It was more challenging than anything else I will ever experience. The physical labor, constant emotional heartbreak, and psychological somersaults of living undercover come together to keep you constantly gasping for air, just hoping to make it another day until the investigation is over. If it wasn't for the wellspring of support coming from Nathan, other investigators, and the rest of the MFA gang, I don't know what I would have done.
What was the most challenging aspect of being an undercover investigator?
Still, I tried to do whatever I could. In my role as a new and perhaps naive employee, I'd report abusive workers and animals in need of veterinary care to management, but they always told me they were aware of the issue and it was just part of the business. One manager even went so far as to forbid me from freeing egg-laying hens that had become trapped in their cages, saying it was a distraction from my duties. The amount of suffering going on in these places is so extreme and so senseless, it boggles the mind.
How do you feel about the "Ag-Gag" laws that have passed in Iowa and Utah?
Well, obviously, I'm concerned that something I used to do to try to make the world a better place can now land me in jail. At the same time, it's vindicating, since it proves that these investigations have been effective.
But these laws have a much greater impact on society than simply criminalizing a few investigators. They're designed to keep Americans in the dark about where their food comes from and to thwart the ongoing progress of the animal protection movements. That's bad for consumers, and it's terrible for farmed animals.
Even if you don't care about animals, these laws are still a menace to democracy. They're flagrantly unconstitutional; their entire purpose is to prevent journalistic scrutiny, which puts them directly at odds with the First Amendment. Also, they were drafted and implemented at the behest of wealthy trade groups that donated generously to the politicians who supported them. To me, that raises some serious concerns about the integrity of the democratic process.
The bright side is, since they were proposed two years ago, our investigations have been all over the media, and new investigations continue to result in felony cruelty charges, indicating that local prosecutors are still interested in going after the real criminals. Now that two of these laws have passed, I have every confidence that groups like MFA are going to challenge them in court. If they're successful, that will be a major victory for the movement.
What kind of effect do you think undercover investigations into factory farms have had on the American public and the animal protection movement?
So much has changed for the better since I got involved in 2008, and I have no doubt that undercover investigations have been empowering people to make this happen. Above all, plant-based eating is booming; the number of vegans has doubled in the last few years alone. Also, states have passed desperately needed laws like California's Proposition 2. Even better, a federal bill that may soon become the first federal law to protect animals during their lives on factory farms is currently before Congress with bipartisan support. On the corporate level, major foodservice companies like McDonald's are turning their backs on some of the cruelest practices while adding more and more vegan options. It's obvious that compassion for farmed animals is an idea whose time has come.
Now that you're finished with undercover investigations, what have you taken away from it?
What has changed about your life and how you communicate with others on this issue? Before I got involved with MFA, I definitely had strong feelings about the way farmed animals were being treated, but would never have identified as an activist. After everything I've seen, however, it's become impossible not to be. As soon as I retired from investigations, I started doing vegan outreach and volunteering for legislative campaigns. Soon after, I enrolled in law school, where I've helped file a multi-billion dollar antitrust suit against the dairy industry and brought civil charges against an extremely cruel poultry hatchery. Sometimes I'm surprised at the dramatic turn my life has taken from the corporate job I had four years ago, but after seeing what I've seen, I can't imagine doing anything else.