BUTTERFIELD — A newly released investigation by the Humane Society of the United States is alleging inhumane treatment of chickens by Butterfield Foods at a hen slaughtering plant in Butterfield.
The public release of the Humane Society's probe of Butterfield Foods included video shot inside the plant over two months by an undercover member of the organization.
"The video speaks for itself. There is object animal cruelty happening on a regular basis (at the plant)," said Paul Shapiro, the vice president of farm animal protection for the Humane Society. The group has asked the Watonwan County attorney's office to charge the company with violations of Minnesota animal cruelty laws.
The organization's press release alleges the plant failed to successfully kill many chickens during its processing, resulting in many chickens later dying by drowning in scalding water during the de-feathering process. The Humane Society's request for a criminal complaint to the Watonwan County attorney alleged over 200 chickens were observed going through this treatment during the investigation.
The organization also alleges the process often insufficiently stunned the chickens that were killed. Lastly, the organization alleges the chickens were kept in packed, filthy conditions during transportation.
Terry Fruth, an attorney representing Butterfield Foods, adamantly denied the allegations. He argued the Humane Society's claim would mean the company was intentionally destroying its own property for no reason.
"We're more than denying. We're saying this is so implausible that it defied credulity," Fruth said. "We've been doing this for 40 years. We have a very clean record."
He said the Humane Society had submitted no proof of birds leaving the scalding water alive. He also said they lacked any proof live birds had entered the water. He said the jerking movement of the poultry on the film did not prove they were alive since chickens are known to move or run around even with heads removed.
"Just because a bird flaps its wings doesn't mean it's alive," Fruth said. "It doesn't meet the plausibility test."
Shapiro said the video never claimed the birds survived the scalding water. He said it claimed they were alive when they entered it. He said the problem is so widespread among poultry plants that the industry term is "red birds," which refers to the blood of a live bird rushing to the scalded skin.
He said the red color of the birds in video proved their point, and the Butterfield plant clearly knew about the issue because they have forms to track the number of "red birds" and a bucket specifically for throwing them away.
But Fruth said one of the Humane Society investigators' jobs was monitoring the lines to prevent the alleged incidents.
"(If the allegations did occur), one of these guys was the one who abused the animals by leaving his post," Fruth said.
Shapiro denied the allegation. He said the investigator had reported his concerns about the situation to a superior, and the investigation also showed "red birds" occurring frequently when the investigators worked a wide variety of jobs at the plant.
The Butterfield plant is a “spent” egg-laying hen slaughter facility, which primarily deals with egg laying hens that are no longer commercially profitable, the company told the Star Tribune.
The Humane Society's complaint has been forwarded to Watonwan County Attorney Stephen Lindee.
"It's still very early. I only just received (the complaint) today. I haven't had a chance to read it yet," Lindee said Monday.
He said it may take a while before he decides whether to pursue charges, and this is the first time he has received of this type of complaint.
The Humane Society also forwarded a complaint to the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service, alleging violations of the Poultry Products Inspections Act.
Shapiro provided a redacted USDA Memorandum of Information for a Feb. 23, 2011, inspection report seeing a total of 27 live birds entering the scalding water. The inspector reported the incident, resulting in a new blade being placed in the kill machine. The report notes no more live chickens entered the scalding water after that point, and the plant was expected to take care of the deficiency.
The Humane Society said it has been critical of many egg producers not meeting even the voluntary space allotment standard established by the United Egg Producers.
The organization notes hens and other poultry are not covered by the federal Humane Methods of Slaughter Act, unlike pigs and cows. It estimates nine out of 10 animals slaughtered for food in the U.S. are poultry.