Holden Farms in Utica was the target of an undercover investigation by an animal rights group


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Aug 13, 2023

Holden Farms in Utica was the target of an undercover investigation by an animal rights group

UTICA, Minn. — A southeastern Minnesota farm has attracted national media attention as the result of an undercover operation conducted inside it by an investigator for an animal rights group. The

UTICA, Minn. — A southeastern Minnesota farm has attracted national media attention as the result of an undercover operation conducted inside it by an investigator for an animal rights group.

The investigator, from Animal Outlook, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles, spent four months during 2019 and 2020 working undercover inside Holden Farms, a pig-breeding operation in Utica, Minn., 30 miles east of Rochester along U.S. Highway 14.

The investigator filmed and took pictures of dead piglet intestines and body fluids blended into a slurry that was fed to mother pigs, in the belief that it boosted their immune systems. The pictures show piglets being castrated by hand without any anesthesia, and then workers throwing the testicles at each other or against a wall.

In one video, an injured pig is killed with a bolt to the head, its limbs flailing in a death throe. In another, a pig waddles down a hallway with a distended prolapse, an organ bulging out of its rectum. Pigs, in various stages of decomposition, are piled on top of each other in bins.

A video showed piglets euthanized with carbon dioxide in a small dark box. Some piglets, having survived the gassing, were left gasping for breath as the other piglets died around them. Workers left the piglets in the gassing box for hours until it could be filled with more animals, so the gas was used more efficiently and cheaply. A video shows workers kicking and beating sows. A mother pig who died after becoming stuck between slats is sawed in half.


In a court filing, facility management are accused of not ordering enough food in order to avoid company-imposed penalties for overordering, resulting in the pigs not being fed on some weekends.

“It felt like something out of a Stephen King movie. It was gory and graphic,” the investigator, named Jim, told the Post Bulletin. “A lot of this is standard. And I think that’s what makes this all the more compelling is that these are barbaric things that are happening every day.”

The investigator declined to give his complete name because of the undercover nature of his ongoing work. He was interviewed by phone and was accompanied by Animal Outlook attorney Jareb Gleckel.

Last week, a federal court lifted the seal on a complaint filed by the Animal Legal Defense Fund based on the undercover investigation by Animal Outlook. The federal complaint was filed in Minnesota on June 29, 2023.

The lawsuit accuses Holden Farms of making false statements to the government when it certified that it was not engaging in any illegal activity when it received a $2.57 million Paycheck Protection Program loan under the CARES Act. The loan was eventually forgiven.

In a statement released Friday, Holden Farms said it had just received the lawsuit and was reviewing the allegations.

“However, based on what is known so far, Holden Farms strongly disagrees with the allegations in this complaint,” said Matthew Berger, an attorney for Holden Farms. “The plaintiff is a group of animal rights activists who have manufactured a novel legal theory to broadly attack livestock farmers and meat producers. Holden Farms intends to vigorously defend against these frivolous allegations.”

“Holden Farms has a long-standing, successful history of producing pork, as well as adhering to high-quality animal care standards. Likewise, we are committed to utilizing the best practices supported by scientific research and veterinary professionals to promote individual animal health and welfare. Given this, training and compliance with animal welfare policies is not only a condition of employment, but a part of the culture at Holden Farms.”


As a company, Holden Farms remains committed to working with its current employees and business partners to ensure the health and welfare of animals on all of their farms," it concluded.

Holden Farms is one of the largest pig production operations in the U.S. It also owns three turkey farms, is part owner in a turkey processing plant, owns 40,000 sows and has nearly 200 contract partners in the region, according to Holden Farms' website. Its chief executive officer is listed as Barry Holden.

The undercover employee worked at Holden Farms more than three years ago, from November 2019 to March 2020. During that time, the investigator, working as a farrowing technician, collected five hours of video and documented “over 100 incidents of cruelty, neglect, and the feeding of feces and dead piglets to mother pigs,” the complaint alleges.

In one incident cited in the complaint, workers play catch with a live piglet. One worker throws the piglet with such force that it strikes a PVC ceiling pipe, breaking it. Water sprays everywhere. “The piglet falls to the floor, unable to move,” the complaint states.

On Aug. 5, 2023, Animal Outlook posted its video and other photographic evidence on its website, three years after its investigation.

Officials said the results of their investigation were shared with local law enforcement in an effort to prosecute the farm on animal cruelty charges, but nothing came of those efforts. Once the three-year statute of limitations expired on the alleged crimes, Animal Outlook released the video.

Since the video was shared, Vox and New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof have written about Animal Outlook’s investigation.

The investigator said he never heard a supervisor or manager at Holden Farms express concern about the care of animals at the farm. The focus was on pushing the limits of production to increase profitability, and workers there were under immense stress and pressure to produce. He said the farm’s efforts to economize on gas in euthanizing piglets shows how profitability took precedence.


“If the supervisor wants to cut on something as small as gas, allowing baby piglets to suffer overnight, just so that they could fill the gas box up (with more piglets), I think that speaks volumes to their attitude towards animal welfare,” he said.

Gleckel, the attorney for Animal Outlook, said the organization’s focus in investigating entities like Holden Farms is to educate and change people’s attitudes about what they eat. If more people understood what happens in the food production process and accepted that “this is the norm,” consumers would second-guess their food choices.

“If these corporations were acting lawfully, I don’t believe they could stay in existence,” Gleckel said. “I don’t believe that this industry is sustainable without this kind of cruelty.”

While documenting numerous incidents of pig cruelty, the crux of the lawsuit is the allegation that Holden Farms fed “garbage,” in the form of a smoothie-like mixture made up of dead piglet parts and pig feces, to mother pigs.

“There is no question,” the lawsuit alleges, that Holden did so without the necessary equipment on site to treat and kill disease organisms in the “feedback mixture” as required by law. By failing to do that, it exposed the public to the risk of contracting various “zoonotic” infectious diseases.

So when Holden Farms certified that it was in compliance with the law, making it eligible for a PPP loan, it was not telling the truth, said ALDF attorney Daniel Waltz.

Waltz said the ALDF can’t directly sue a private entity like Holden Farms for violating animal cruelty law, because it’s the province of law enforcement to bring criminal charges. But there are other avenues to enforce criminal laws, and one avenue is under the False Claim Act.

“If there so happens to be a false claim or a false certification in exchange for government money, that false certification is based off some sort of underlying illegal behavior like we’re saying happened here,” Waltz said.