Herb Weisbaum, NBC News contributor
It is not the kind of publicity a turkey company wants the week before Thanksgiving. An animal rights group claims to have documented “a pattern of shocking abuse and neglect” by workers at numerous Butterball turkey farms in North Carolina.
Undercover video taken by Mercy for Animals, an activist organization with a vegetarian agenda, appears to show birds being kicked, poked and thrown around.
Butterball, the country’s largest turkey producer, declined to address the allegations specifically. In a statement to NBCNews.com, the company said it is aware of the video and takes “any allegations of animal mistreatment very seriously.”
Butterball said it has a long-standing zero tolerance policy for animal abuse and remains committed to the ethical and responsible care of its turkey flocks. The company said an internal investigation is under way and the workers in question have been suspended.
“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,” the company statement said. “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.”
This is not the first time Mercy for Animals has accused Butterball of animal abuse. Last year, the group’s hidden video documented similar problems at a Butterball factory farm in North Carolina. That resulted in the arrest of five employees on animal abuse charges.
The Associated Press reports that in August, one of those workers pleaded guilty to felony animal cruelty and was sentenced to 30 days in jail and fined $550.
Will this latest hidden-camera video hurt Butterball sales?
Phil Lempert, an industry analyst known as the Supermarket Guru, believes it’s possible, especially if the video goes viral. People won’t stop eating turkey, but they might choose another brand.
“These days shoppers want to know more about where their foods come from,” Lempert said. “We have seen a consumer and industry move to more humane treatment of chickens, hogs and cattle and now turkeys. This Thanksgiving shoppers will be looking at prices and the credibility of the brand that sells them.”