Animal activists say turkeys were abused at N.C. plants

bcain@newsobserver.comNovember 14, 2012 

Less than a year after an animal welfare group uncovered abuse at a Butterball turkey farm in Hoke County, the group says another undercover investigation shows identical practices at Butterball facilities in Onslow, Duplin, Sampson and Lenoir counties.

Mercy for Animals, the group that showed the Hoke abuse, released video evidence Wednesday of workers at several farms stomping, kicking and throwing live turkeys.

The video, recorded last month, was obtained by an undercover investigator for the group who worked for Butterball on a turkey loading crew. All of the farms on the video grow turkeys for Butterball.

Dr. Gary Burkett, a veterinarian and adjunct assistant professor at the N.C. State College of Veterinary Medicine, reviewed the footage and said the abuses are identical to those discovered last year. That abuse led to criminal cruelty charges and convictions.

“These behaviors are cruel, inhumane and injurious to the birds,” Burkett said. “I am appalled at the disrespect these workers have toward the lives of other living creatures.”

The investigator also found turkeys living in dirty, crowded conditions and said some were left to die from untreated illnesses and injuries, including open sores, infections and broken bones.

Matt Rice, the director of investigations for Mercy for Animals, a Los Angeles-based animal welfare group, said the video and list of complaints were turned over to the Lenoir County Sheriff’s Department, as well as to the district attorneys in Duplin, Sampson and Onslow counties.

“They are investigating as we speak,” Rice said.

In a statement released Wednesday afternoon, Butterball again stressed its “zero tolerance policy for animal abuse,” and said it has already taken action in response to the latest allegations.

“Upon learning of these new concerns, we immediately initiated an internal investigation and suspended the associates in question,” spokeswoman Rachael Jarnagin said in the statement.

Once the investigation is complete, the company says it will decide on additional action, including possible immediate termination for those involved.

Butterball, based in Garner, is the nation’s largest producer of turkeys.

In the 2011 Hoke County case, five workers were charged with animal cruelty for mistreatment of turkeys. The case also resulted in charges against a doctor for the N.C. Department of Agriculture. MFA turned video over to Hoke officials, who contacted the N.C. Department of Agriculture for advice on how to proceed. Dr. Sarah Jean Mason, an agriculture department employee, then called a Butterball veterinarian to warn them about the video. Mason pleaded guilty in February to impeding the investigation and making false statements to authorities.

Mason received a suspended sentenced, and was suspended without pay for two weeks.

Cain: 919-829-4579

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