Hoke County deputies arrested three employees at a Butterball Turkey facility near Shannon, N.C. and charged them with animal cruelty. Authorities are still searching for two more.
Now, the animal rights group Mercy for Animals is blaming the state's head vet for compromising the investigation.
The probe began late last year when the group 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.
Mason appeared before a Hoke County judge Wednesday and pleaded guilty to obstruction and resisting a public officer. She got a suspended 45-day jail sentence in exchange for her plea.
In a statement, NCDA&CS said it has suspended Mason without pay for two weeks.
But, Mercy for Animals said mason got a slap on the wrist for tipping off the vet working for Butterball.
Hoke County authorities said it's hard to know what impact Mason's actions had on their investigation. But they said additional charges and arrests are possible.
The head of Mercy for Animals claimed managers on staff at the Hoke County farm were aware of the alleged abuse of turkeys.
"We think this is a top down policy level abuse issue," Nathan Runkle with Mercy For Animals said. "Clearly this investigation has been compromised by the leak and one can only imagine what charges would've been brought had this investigation (not been) tipped off."
The head of Butterball issued a statement that said it had fired four and suspended two of its current workers facing charges.
"We are closely re-evaluating our animal care and well-being policies and practices and have already established several new initiatives - including reviewing scientific literature and enhancing the company program, re-training associates on animal care and well-being, elevating animal care and well-being to a position that reports directly to me, and conducting extensive third-party audits by national experts - that reinforce this commitment."