Feb. 16, 2012 — -- Six workers at a Butterball turkey farm in North Carolina face criminal charges after an undercover video revealed alleged animal abuse, and a state employee who tipped off Butterball before a police raid on the farm has pled guilty to obstruction of justice.
Three workers have been arrested, according to Hoke County officials. Terry Johnson has been charged with misdemeanor cruelty to animals, Ruben Mendoza has been charged with animal cruelty and felony identity theft, and Jose Garcia has been charged with felony identity theft. Three other workers are being sought on animal cruelty charges.
Mercy for Animals, the animal rights group that shot the undercover video, said there had been no insider information about abuse at the facility before the tape was made. "Unfortunately, every time we send an investigator they emerge with shocking evidence of animal abuse," said MFA executive director Nathan Runkle.
"Butterball allowed a culture of cruelty and abuse to fester at its company-owned factory farms," alleged Runkle. "Before ending up in restaurants and grocery stores, turkeys killed for Butterball are routinely crowded into filthy warehouses, neglected to die from infected, bloody wounds, and thrown, kicked, and beaten by factory farm workers."
In addition, Dr. Sarah Mason, a veterinarian at the North Carolina Department of Agriculture, was suspended from her job starting Monday, and was sentenced to 45 days in the Hoke County jail after pleading guilty to obstructing justice and obstructing a public officer. Mason admitted calling a friend who worked at Butterball prior to the raid. Her sentence was suspended and she will be on unsupervised probation, but she will be required to take two ethics courses.
Hoke County detectives raided the Butterball turkey farm on Dec. 28 after seeing hidden camera video shot by Mercy for Animals. An MFA activist had worked undercover at the farm for three weeks and documented what the group called "acts of violence and severe neglect." In the video, workers can be seen kicking and stomping on turkeys, as well as dragging them by their wings and necks. The video also shows injured birds with open wounds and exposed flesh. During the December raid, officials inspected 2,800 turkeys, seizing 28 and euthanizing four.
Officials later raised questions about phone calls between government officials and Butterball days before the raid. They charged that Dr. Mason, the Director of Animal Health Programs at the Agriculture Department, had called a Butterball veterinarian on Dec. 23 and allegedly informed him that there was an investigation into the farm. Details of the pending raid, according to prosecutors at the Hoke County District Attorney's office, were supposed to be "treated as confidential, and should not be disclosed."
Though she initially denied talking to the Butterball employee, Dr. Mason later admitted telling him about the existence of the Mercy for Animals video showing alleged abuse, and telling him that the video had been given to a county prosecutor.
It is vital that law enforcement be able to rely on other government agencies and their employees to safeguard confidential information that must be shared during a criminal investigation," said Hoke County District Attorney Kristy Newton. "It is unfortunate that Dr. Mason chose to breach the level of trust that her fellow public officials and the people of North Carolina placed in her when she released confidential information that could have potentially undermined an on-going criminal investigation and then lied to police about her conduct.
After conducting an internal investigation, officials at the Agriculture Department suspended Dr. Mason for two weeks without pay. "The Department ... found that Dr. Mason did not at first answer truthfully when she was interviewed on Jan. 5, 2012 by Hoke County authorities about a leak of information about their investigation," said the Agriculture Department in a statement. "We were aware that charges could be brought against Dr. Mason as a result of her actions."
But the department's statement also said that Dr. Mason had not explicitly told anyone at Butterball that there was a criminal investigation in progress, "nor was she aware or did she tell anyone that there was going to be a search warrant served at any of their facilities."
In a statement issued last month through her attorney, Dr. Mason said her rationale for contacting the Butterball veterinarian -- a longtime personal friend -- was to "immediately curtail" any animal abuse taking place. In addition, Mason stated, "I deeply regret the actions I have taken have reflected poorly on the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services." She stated she recognized the "seriousness of the situation."
Nathan Runkle, executive director of Mercy for Animals, the group that recorded the undercover video, said, "It is deeply troubling that a governmental agency that is entrusted with monitoring and overseeing agriculture and food production is so corrupt that it's in bed with the very corporate interests that were documented abusing and neglecting animals. The fox apparently is guarding the henhouse."
Butterball issued a statement Wednesday saying four employees had been fired and two suspended. "As the result of Butterball's own internal investigation into this matter, Butterball terminated four employees last month due to their failure to comply with the company's animal care and well-being standards," said the statement. "Butterball understands that three of these former associates have been charged with animal cruelty today. In addition, Butterball understands that two current Butterball associates have been charged with animal cruelty. Butterball has immediately suspended these two current associates pending final disciplinary action."
Butterball, which accounts for 20 percent of total turkey production in the U.S., has said it was "shocked" by the undercover video, is taking the animal cruelty investigation seriously, and has a "zero tolerance policy for any mistreatment of our birds." The company said that as a result of an internal investigation, it is evaluating its animal welfare policies, and has fired "several associates for failure to follow Butterball animal care and well-being policies."
"We are taking steps to help ensure that all new and existing associates have a clear understanding of our animal well-being policies," said Rod Brenneman, president and CEO of Butterball. "In addition to requiring all associates to sign an animal well-being agreement to report abuse immediately, we are performing an intense review across all company operations."