Prosecutor: Insufficient evidence in Butterball turkey abuse allegations

POSTED: 12:44 PM Nov 15 2012   UPDATED: 12:31 AM Dec 11 2012

District Attorney Ernie Lee says there will not be charges filed against Butterball in a turkey abuse investigation.  Lee says there was not sufficient evidence to prove without a reasonable doubt that the animals were harmed in farms in Onslow, Duplin, and Sampson counties.  A farm in Lenoir County was also sighted in an allegation by an animal rights group; no word on that location and charges there.

The D.A. released a lengthy explanation of why charges could not be filed.  Here is an excerpt from his release (full statement here):

     "The footage and documents that I reviewed depicted workers attempting to move and moving numerous turkeys from turkey houses to trucks.  The turkeys are being moved from the turkey houses to the truck conveyor belt for apparent slaughter for human consumption. The overwhelming majority of turkeys were moved without any physical contact from the workers.  There were some depictions in the video of when the workers had to move turkeys by physical contact.  The workers did not appear to attempt to wound, injure or torment the turkeys, but rather the workers' contact with the turkeys appeared to be with the intent of moving the turkeys from the turkey houses to a conveyor belt leading to a transport truck.  Any contact with the turkeys did not appear to be egregious or malicious in nature and did not appear for the purpose of tormenting the turkeys.  As such and based upon North Carolina statute, I believe the conduct of the workers would not be in violation of NCGS § 14 360.     

     In addition, the State has the burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt as to any alleged criminal offenses committed in North Carolina.  Even in the light most favorable to the State, from my review of the video footage, the regulations concerning the handling of poultry, and the applicable law in North Carolina, there appears to be insufficient evidence to prove any alleged abuse of turkeys beyond a reasonable doubt in the investigation before me involving the Butterball turkey houses in Duplin, Onslow and Sampson Counties."

The allegations of abuse were brought forward in mid-November.

Mercy for Animals, the animal rights group who shot the video used in the investigation, also released the following statement from its Executive Director Nathan Runkle:

     "Mercy For Animals is disappointed that District Attorney Ernie Lee will not be filing criminal charges against the Butterball workers who were caught on video kicking and stomping on birds, dragging them by their fragile wings and necks, and maliciously throwing turkeys onto the ground or on top of other birds.  North Carolina law clearly indicates that these acts are illegal and should be punished, and the District Attorney's decision not to uphold the law is extremely troubling."

PREVIOUS STORY:

An animal rights group as brought forward new allegations of abuse at four turkey farms in North Carolina.

A group called Mercy for Animals has accused workers of stomping, kicking and throwing live turkeys at farms that produce for Butterball. The group claims the abuse is happening at farms in Onslow, Duplin, Sampson and Lenoir counties.

This comes less than a year after a prior investigation into a Butterball farm in Hoke County. The video the group produced (WARNING: Graphic content and language) is a compilation of video shot at each farm.

Matthew Rice, director of investigations with Mercy for Animals, says he was horrified by the images.

Butterball has since released this statement:

Butterball is aware of the video released today by Mercy for Animals, and we take any allegations of animal mistreatment very seriously. As has been our long-standing policy, we have a zero tolerance policy for animal abuse. Any employee found to have violated our animal care and well-being guidelines, as well as any employee who witnessed abuse and failed to report it, will be terminated. Butterball’s guidelines are based on guidelines developed by the National Turkey Federation that have been approved by animal well-being experts including Dr. Joy Mench at University of California at Davis, Dr. Janice Swanson from Michigan State University and Dr. Gail Golab at the American Veterinary Medical Association, among others.

When we learn of any instances of animal mistreatment, we take immediate corrective action to suspend workers involved, conduct a swift investigation and terminate their employment with the company. Upon learning of these new concerns, we immediately initiated an internal investigation and suspended the associates in question. Pending the completion of that investigation, Butterball will then make a determination on additional actions including immediate termination for those involved.

Animal care and well-being is central to the operations of our company, and we remain committed to the ethical and responsible care of our turkey flocks.