Arrests in Butterball animal cruelty case

February 14, 2012 9:00:00 PM PST
Hoke County deputies arrested three employees at a Butterball Turkey facility near Shannon, N.C. Wednesday and charged them with animal cruelty. Authorities were searching for two more.

The move came the same day a North Carolina Department of Agriculture employee was charged with obstructing the investigation.

The probe began late last year when the group Mercy for Animals filed a complaint with the Hoke County District Attorney after it said one of its members went undercover and got a job at the facility to videotape conditions.

Mercy for Animals posted an edited clip of its video at the web site www.butterballabuse.com. The video appears to show workers kicking and stomping turkeys. The video also shows injured birds with open wounds.

Hoke County authorities raided the Butterball plant on Dec. 28.

Deputies alleged Dr. Sarah Mason - a veterinarian at the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services - contacted a veterinarian at Butterball Turkey on Dec. 23 to share information she had received from a fellow employee about the Mercy for Animals video.

In a statement Wednesday, NCDA&CS said it suspended Mason without pay for two weeks after its internal investigation found Mason did not at first answer truthfully when she was interviewed on Jan. 5 by Hoke County authorities about a leak of information about their investigation.

Mason said in a statement earlier this year that she acted on her own and reached out to a fellow veterinarian to immediately curtail any avian abuse.

"I deeply regret actions I have taken have reflected poorly on the NC Department of Agriculture," said Mason.

Click here to read the entire statement (.pdf)

The NCDA&CS also said Mason will be required to attend ethics training. The department said she derived no personal gain or benefit from her actions.

Mason appeared before a Hoke County judge Wednesday and pleaded guilty to obstruction and resisting a public officer. A 45-day jail sentence was suspended if she completes 12 months of probation.

In a statement to ABC11, Butterball said it was cooperating fully with the investigation. The company said it fired four employees last month due to their failure to comply with company animal care standards. Two current employees were also charged and they have been suspended.

"…we are committed to the care and well-being of our turkey flocks. We are closely re-evaluating our animal care and well-being policies and practices," Butterball said in part.

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