Raleigh, N.C. — State Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler showed support Thursday for the state's top poultry veterinarian, who has been accused of tipping off officials at the turkey producer Butterball last month before a raid on one of its operations in Hoke County.
Six days before the Dec. 29 raid, Hoke County investigators contacted the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services for advice about how to proceed. Hours later, Dr. Sarah Mason contacted Dr. Eric Gonder, a veterinarian for Butterball, to relay the information. An undercover investigator for an animal rights group videotaped workers abusing turkeys at the Shannon plant and leaving injured birds untended. Some turkeys found by investigators for the Hoke County Sheriff's Department had to be euthanized.
Troxler said Thursday that Mason didn't intend to tip off Butterball.
"She says she was making that decision thinking she was actually helping the situation of the cruelty to animals, and knowing her as an exemplary employee, that seems pretty reasonable," Troxler said.
According to a search warrant released last week, Mason first denied contacting Gonder but admitted it only after investigators told her Gonder had already identified her as the contact.
In a statement issued by her attorney, Mason said Gonder is a longtime friend. She said she called him because she wanted to stop the abuse immediately.
"I recognize the seriousness of my actions and do not want my actions to negatively influence the public's perception of my colleagues at the department," Mason said.
Mason also said no one at the agriculture department had asked her to make the call and that no one else there was aware of her actions.
No charges have been filed in the case.
Critics of the department have accused it of being too friendly with the businesses it regulates.
An investigation is underway, both by law enforcement officials and within the department.
Butterball issued a statement saying it is fully cooperating with the investigation into the leak, adding that, "The Hoke County incident is a regrettable and unfortunate event and does not in any way reflect the policies, intentions or beliefs of Butterball or its associates."