Jan. 11, 2012 -- Days before a Butterball turkey farm was raided by police because of allegations of animal abuse, the company had been tipped off that it was under investigation, ABC News has learned. That leak, according to officials, came from a veterinarian at a government agency charged with overseeing the health of Butterball's animals.
Last month, officials in Hoke County, North Carolina raided the Butterball facility, spurred by hidden camera video obtained by the animal rights group Mercy for Animals. A Mercy for Animals activist had worked undercover at the farm for three weeks and documented what the group called "acts of violence and severe neglect" on turkeys housed there. 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.
The video prompted an investigation by the Hoke County District Attorney, and in a Dec. 28 raid by the Hoke County Sheriff's Department, officials inspected 2,800 turkeys, seizing 28 and euthanizing four. The investigation is ongoing and no criminal charges have been filed.
But now phone records of calls between Butterball and government officials may raise questions about the relationship between the nation's largest turkey producer and a regulatory agency that is supposed to oversee it. ABC News has obtained a copy of a search warrant for records of phone calls between a veterinarian at the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and a veterinarian for Butterball.
According to the documents, a prosecutor in the Hoke County D.A.'s office had contacted the N.C. Department of Agriculture prior to the December raid to inquire if the office wanted to assist with the inspection of the turkeys during the action. One of the responsibilities of the Department of Agriculture is to inspect livestock to ensure the health of animals.
In addition, the prosecutor alleged in the search warrant that conversations about the pending raid were supposed to be "treated as confidential, and should not be disclosed." Instead, officials charge, an employee there -- the Director of Animal Health Programs -- contacted a veterinarian employed by Butterball. Upon questioning by prosecutors, documents indicate, the government employee allegedly first denied knowing about the investigation until the raid, then admitted she had called the Butterball doctor prior to the raid "and informed him she had heard there was an investigation into a Butterball farm in Hoke County."
The search warrant seizes phone records between Butterball and the N.C. Department of Agriculture from five days before the raid until late last week.
"It is deeply troubling," said Nathan Runkle, executive director of Mercy for Animals, "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."
In a statement, the N.C. Dept. of Agriculture said the agency was "cooperating with law enforcement agencies in Hoke County in their investigation of whether any of our employees may have inappropriately shared information about an animal cruelty investigation at a turkey farm. Once the investigation is complete, we will take appropriate action based on the facts."
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."