The Truth About Butterball Turkeys

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By Martha Rosenberg

"People love turkey. We love turkey, too," says the corporate website for Butterball, the nation's largest vertically integrated turkey producer.

Butterball is certified by the British Retail Consortium, says the site, on "300 elements related to food safety and quality, as well as worker safety, environmental impact and management commitment." The turkey processor practices "good citizenship" based on "self-governance," "social responsibility," and  "sustainability."

But search for the words "welfare," "Mercy For Animals" or "Shannon, North Carolina" (where a grisly Christmas-time expose took place) and you will get no results. Maybe you didn't spell the words correctly.

Between November and December of 2011, while people were making their holiday plans, an undercover employee at a Butterball turkey semen collection facility in Shannon documented turkeys with open sores, infected eyes and broken bones, covered in flies and living in their own waste. Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

"In the video, workers can be seen kicking and stomping on turkeys, as well as dragging them by their wings and necks," reported ABC news. "The video also shows injured birds with open wounds and exposed flesh."

Birds at the Butterball facility were left to slowly die from their injuries, some unable to even reach food or water, says the undercover employee. The "pain and the suffering that they're experiencing," is clearly visible she told NBS news.

Like scores of other gigantic food producers who have been exposed on undercover videos as harboring sadistic employees and sick and dying animals, Butterball pleads ignorance. It has a "zero tolerance policy for any mistreatment of our birds," and has fired the proverbial "bad apple" employees it did not know about. Who knew?

Butterball is also "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. Maybe employees don't know they aren't supposed to stomp and kick birds, drag them by their wings and necks, not to mention bash them in the heads with metal bars, as the employee reports. Let's tell them!

But, it wasn't only Butterball management that enabled the agricultural hell for turkeys in the interests of cheap "holiday" food. Dr. Sarah Mason, head of animal health programs in the North Carolina Department of Agriculture, tipped off Butterball about a December 28 raid and managed to sabotaged it.  Even as the Hoke County Sheriff's Department sought to raid Butterball on the basis of videotaped evidence, Mason contacted "a friend and fellow veterinarian" who works for Butterball, which assured that the raid "never had a chance," reports the Fayetteville Observer.

Hey, from one vet to another, we better hide the animal abuse we're permitting!

Given that the state agency is in charge of regulating Butterball yet undermined the raid, was there a quid pro quo involved? "That's a criminal matter, to be decided by the district attorney's office," opines the Observer.

The sordid collegiality between government and industry which makes a mockery of democracy, consumer rights and animal welfare, brings to mind the saga of egg don Austin "Jack" DeCoster, the salmonella king.

Despite the recall of half a billion salmonella-contaminated eggs from DeCoster-affiliated farms in 2010, his conviction on animal cruelty the same year and nine deaths and 500 illnesses traced to his eggs in 1987,  Iowa state agencies thought he was a pretty cool dude.

"One of the things I've always said about DeCoster is that when there's a problem at his facilities, he acts fast," enthused Kevin Buskins, a spokesman for Iowa's Department of Natural Resources which shares oversight of egg operations with the state agriculture department.

Will Butterball get a pass like DeCoster did? So far no charges have been filed against the turkey processor and its state regulator "friend" still has her job. And there is even more good news for the turkey processor. The company and its communications agency, Howard, Merrell & Partners, received four public relations awards from the Virginia Chapter of the National Agri-Marketing Association, Carolinas, this month at an industry banquet.

Receiving honors were a celebration for the "millionth fresh bird produced during the 2010 holiday season," a press release announcing  330,000 pounds of turkey products donated to the needy and a campaign in partnership with the Weekly Reader that demonstrates "how responsible agricultural practices lead to healthy animals and safe, high-quality food for consumers." 

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