Raleigh, N.C. — The state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services should have fired an official who tipped off Butterball to a criminal investigation of one of its turkey operations in Hoke County, an animal rights group said Thursday.
Dr. Sarah Mason, director of animal health programs in the department's Poultry Division, pleaded guilty Wednesday to misdemeanor counts of obstruction of justice and resisting, delaying or obstructing officers. She was placed on probation for a year.
The charges stem from a Dec. 29 raid by Hoke County deputies at a Butterball farm in Shannon. Six days before the raid, Mason contacted a veterinarian for Butterball to inform him that Hoke County prosecutors were reviewing an undercover video of suspected animal abuse at the farm.
Investigators found some turkeys at the farm were in such poor condition that they had to be euthanized.
The agriculture department on Monday suspended Mason for two weeks without pay following an internal investigation of the incident. The department said her actions didn't adversely affect the investigation.
Nathan Runkle, executive director of Mercy for Animals, which taped the undercover footage at the turkey farm and turned it over to authorities, disagreed and criticized the agriculture department for its stance.
"Clearly, this investigation has been compromised by the leak," Runkle said. "The Department of Agriculture's actions are too little, too late and amount to a mere slap on the wrist. Dr. Mason should be fired for these egregious ethics violations."
Mason has been unavailable for comment.
In a statement issued by her attorney last month, she said the Butterball veterinarian is a longtime friend and that she called him because she wanted to stop the abuse immediately. She 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.
Garner-based Butterball said five current and former workers at the farm have been charged with animal cruelty in the case. Three of the workers were fired last month, and the other two were suspended Wednesday, the company said.
Two of the men, Ruben Mendoza and Terry Johnson, no ages or addresses available, were arrested Wednesday, and a third, Ronnie Jacobs, 57, of 4475 Rockfish Road, Lot 22 in Raeford, was arrested Thursday.
Hoke County deputies were still searching for Brian Gerrard Douglas, 35, of 7140 Laurinburg Road in Raeford, and Billy Thomas McBryde, 52, of 22-A West Gate Terrace in Red Springs.
Butterball said it was reviewing its animal welfare polices and planned to retrain workers on animal care and allow outside experts to audit its operations.
Runkle said he doesn't believe the company will make any changes, calling animal abuse a problematic pattern that reaches the top levels of the firm.
"Although Butterball has publicly claimed to have a zero-tolerance for animal abuse, as this case illustrates, little could be further from the truth," he said. "Shame on Butterball for allowing a culture of cruelty and neglect to foster at its company-owned factory farm. This is the height of corporate irresponsibility."