IOWA CITY, Iowa -- An animal rights activist whose investigations and pranks have made him a leading foe of the livestock industry has been charged with trespassing at a pig facility, in the first case brought under Iowa’s latest law aimed at protecting farming operations from intruders.
Matthew Johnson, 35, is charged with trespassing at a food operation for his presence Feb. 5 outside an Iowa Select Farms sow operation in Dows, 75 miles (120 kilometers) north of Des Moines.
Investigators say surveillance video captured Johnson approach one of the buildings and try to pull a door to determine if it was locked before running away. Iowa Select Farms, one of the nation’s largest pork producers, turned over the footage to the Wright County sheriff’s office, and Johnson was charged last month.
Under the so-called ag-gag law signed by Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds in June, trespassing at a food operation is an aggravated misdemeanor that carries up to two years in prison and a $8,540 fine. A second offense is a felony that carries up to five years behind bars. Those are far harsher penalties than trespassing elsewhere, a simple misdemeanor that carries up to 30 days in jail and a $855 fine.
Johnson said Thursday that he was at the site filming videos for social media and trying to check on animals that “are living lives of horrific suffering" but that he never went inside any building. Separately, he is awaiting trial on burglary and electronic eavesdropping charges for allegedly entering the same facility on May 25, 2020, leaving recording equipment and taking a piglet that he said he rescued from slaughter.
Lawmakers say they increased the penalties for trespassing at livestock operations to protect farmers from harassment and deter intrusions that threaten the safety of the state’s multibillion-dollar agriculture industry.
Bill sponsor and Republican state Sen. Ken Rozenboom said Johnson and other activists have trespassed at his hog facilities four times.
“Every time he and his henchmen do that, they violate biosecurity protocols that are necessary to keep our food supply safe. And we simply can’t tolerate that kind of reckless, and I would say evil, intent," he said.
But Johnson said activists follow biosecurity measures that are greater than the industry standard. He and other critics say the law targets undercover investigations that expose poor conditions for animals and turn public opinion against the meat industry.
Two previous Iowa laws that targeted undercover livestock investigations, passed in 2012 and 2019, have been put on hold amid legal challenges. The 8th Circuit Court of Appeals is expected to rule soon on a federal judge's decision that the initial law was unconstitutional because it criminalized protected speech.
Meanwhile, Iowa lawmakers moved this week to target Johnson’s tactics again by enhancing penalties for people who place surveillance equipment while trespassing and who take unauthorized samples from livestock for disease testing. The governor could soon sign the bill into law.
Johnson, a researcher with the group Direct Action Everywhere, last year placed recording equipment at another Iowa Select Farms property and documented company workers using heat and steam to kill thousands of hogs in what he called a barbaric practice.
The company defended the method, known as ventilation shutdown, as a veterinary-approved way to depopulate its farms after the COVID-19 pandemic slowed production at plants and left nowhere for the animals to go. But Iowa Select stopped using the practice shortly after Johnson’s expose. Prosecutors dropped related charges against Johnson after the company said it did not want to testify at trial.
In December, Johnson posed as the CEO of Smithfield Foods during a live interview on Fox Business, warning that farms “can sometimes be petri dishes for new diseases” and pledging $500 million annually to offset the environmental impact of the meat industry. Anchor Maria Bartiromo said on the air that she was “punked.”
Johnson said that he will likely use the charge to challenge the constitutionality of the new law.
Justin Merceau, a University of Denver law professor who has been involved in challenging “ag-gag” laws in Iowa and elsewhere, said it’s stunning that lawmakers responded to Johnson’s expose of hog deaths not by banning the practice but by going after the messenger. He said Johnson could someday be seen as a transformational figure for his work informing the public about the meat industry.
“He is doing the work on the underbelly of this beast that has been too dirty, too controversial and too risky for most people,” Merceau said. “He has that appetite and fearlessness. I imagine he is public enemy No. 1.”