DA: Not enough evidence in latest video to prosecute Butterball

Company still may reprimand, fire workers at farms

kjahner@newsobserver.comDecember 11, 2012 

A district attorney said Tuesday that a second video documenting alleged turkey abuse by Butterball in less than a year does not contain enough evidence to merit criminal prosecution, though workers could still face sanctions or firings.

Ernie Lee, the top prosecutor for Onslow, Duplin, Sampson and Jones counties, said in a statement that based on the hours of footage handed to him by Mercy for Animals, he couldn’t prove the actions violated the law.

Mercy for Animals, a Los Angeles-based animal rights group, publically released the second video on Nov. 14. It was shot by an undercover investigator working at farms in Onslow, Duplin, Sampson and Lenoir counties. The video shows employees kicking turkeys as they herd them and throwing them roughly by their wings. Mercy for Animals said its investigation also concluded that the birds lived in dirty, crowded conditions, many with untreated illnesses and injuries including open sores, infections and broken bones.

Stephanie Llorente, a spokeswoman for Garner-based Butterball, said Tuesday that the company has a zero-tolerance policy for animal abuse. She said any employees found to have engaged in animal abuse would be terminated. Multiple crews remain suspended while the company investigates this latest video, and discipline could still be handed down.

Butterball declined to update an earlier statement with the progress of its internal investigation. The district attorney’s office in Lenoir County has yet to announce whether it would file criminal charges.

The video does not show the same level of violence and gore as the video shot in Hoke County in December 2011, though it contains similar elements. In that video, Birds were kicked more forcefully, thrown into trucks – often missing and hitting the side of cages before falling to the ground. In one clip a worker beat two live birds with a metal rod. More graphically mutilated birds also appeared.

That case resulted in five workers being charged with animal abuse. The director of animal health for the state Department of Agriculture was also charged with informing the company of the investigation. Two workers and the state employee, Dr. Sarah Mason, have been convicted; one of the workers is serving 9-14 months for a felony.

Lee said that after reviewing the tapes extensively and consulting with assistant district attorneys and the state and federal departments of agriculture, he couldn’t prove beyond reasonable doubt that the law had been violated. The statute, he noted, said abuse required an individual to “intentionally wound, injure or torment an animal.”

“The workers did not appear to attempt to wound, injure or torment the turkeys, but rather the workers’ contact with the turkeys appeared to be with the intent of moving the turkeys,” Lee said in his statement.

Dr. Gary Burkett, veterinarian and adjunct assistant professor at the N.C. State College of Veterinary Medicine, equated the two cases and called the actions in the new video “cruel, inhumane, and injurious to the birds.”

Mercy for Animals also objected.

“We do find his decision troubling. This is nearly identical to the abuses that did lead to convictions,” said Matt Rice, director of investigation for the pro-vegan organization. “These are flightless birds; throwing them through the air is the same as throwing a puppy through the air.”

Rice said the move also serves as a clear indication that North Carolina abuse laws should be strengthened, and said no federal law protects poultry.

Mercy for Animals has investigated more than 20 facilities, claiming it has uncovered abuses at every site it has infiltrated. Its agents get jobs and perform their required duties while documenting conditions on location. Many of their investigations have led to criminal charges.

Jahner: 919-829-4822

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