Matt Johnson

Published on:

June 22, 2021

Covid Exposed the Brutal Reality of America’s Meat. And It’s Worse Than You Think.

Bloomberg columnist Adam Minter recently penned an article titled “Covid Almost Caused a Meat Crisis,” sounding the alarm about potential meat shortages. But the meat industry is itself a perpetual crisis, and Minter’s diagnosis of both problem and solution get it exactly wrong.

Last spring, amid widespread covid outbreaks at meatpacking plants throughout the country, I led a team of investigators in Iowa in exposing a mass pig killing technique known as “ventilation shutdown,” or VSD. This practice involves loading thousands of pigs into a barn, closing off all air vents, and pumping heat and steam in as pigs shriek in nonstop agony for hours, eventually succumbing to heat exhaustion and/or suffocation.

The offending company, Iowa Select Farms (ISF), faced no repercussions for their conduct, which was not only cruel, but criminal under Iowa law. For those exposing the misconduct, on the other hand, the consequences were swift and severe; I’m facing a felony prosecution and FBI probe, while ISF employees who disagreed with its use of VSD were fired.

The situation easily meets any reasonable person’s definition of a crisis. I know, as I’ve heard from many.

But other people see a very different crisis in our food system. Not the harrowing psychological toll endured by slaughterhouse workers, not the billions of animals living lives of abject suffering, nor this industry’s takeover of our legal system to target the very whistleblowing activity it ought to protect. 

DxE investigator Matt Johnson holding Gilly, a piglet he rescued from Iowa Select Farms.

Bloomberg’s Adam Minter claims the issue with the burgeoning prominence of the animal agriculture industry is the specter of having *less* of it. As such, he calls the problem the solution, and the solution the problem.

At first blush, Minter’s fears about potential food shortages resulting from meatpacking plant closures may seem reasonable enough. We’ve seen the photos of empty grocery store shelves and long lines of cars at food pantries. Perhaps you’ve even had these experiences yourself.

While it’s unclear just how close the US came to widespread meat shortages last spring — a record amount of pork was exported to China last April — the real question is more fundamental. Would less meat — or no meat — be such a “crisis” at all? Or could the answer lie not in doubling down on our current system, but in fundamentally reimagining what it could be?

Animal agriculture is a dated, dying industry that ultimately serves only a thin sliver of people at the top; the rest of us —  workers and neighboring communities, humans and animals, and really, all life on Earth — are better off without it. And while factory farming PR teams work round the clock to sugarcoat, legislate and suppress their way to continued existence, the covid crisis has laid bare the longstanding abuses of an industry well overdue for fundamental transformation.

As with horse-drawn carriages, fossil fuels, and other once-ubiquitous but flawed consumer goods, the solution lies not in reform, but revolution. Modern, civil society has no place for this industry, which future generations will surely look upon with scorn. It exploits the most vulnerable for labor while destroying the environment at both the local and global levels. It actually wastes a massive amount of food — requiring roughly ten pounds of plant-based foods such as soy or wheat to produce a pound of meat. And it denigrates billions of sentient individuals — 99% of US food animals are raised in factory farm conditions — to mere commodities in a system that routinely subjects them cruelty only a sociopath would inflict if left to his own devices.

America is at its best when we’re looking forward, optimistically embracing innovation. Perhaps rather than using our ingenuity to come up with increasingly creative ways to perpetuate old ways of thinking, we can continually reimagine something better. Perhaps this time of extraordinary challenges can inspire extraordinary change. And perhaps, with plant-based meats and milks readily offering superior alternatives, we can embrace a food system that doesn’t use animals at all.


Matt Johnson is an investigator with the grassroots animal rights network Direct Action Everywhere, living in California. The Iowa native currently faces a felony prosecution in his home state after leading DxE’s 2020 “ventilation shutdown” mass pig killing exposé of Iowa Select Farms.