A video purporting to show inhumane slaughter practices at a Foster Farms chicken plant in Fresno County has led to the suspension of five workers and a criminal investigation by the sheriff's office.
Mercy for Animals released graphic video footage showing chickens that appeared to have bypassed the slaughter knife and wound up being scalded to death in a plucking tank. Workers also can be seen throwing and shoving birds, while other footage showed what appeared to be overcrowding of live birds.
Foster Farms said it has suspended five employees and is cooperating with a Fresno County Sheriff's Office investigation.
"It is Foster Farms' policy to take disciplinary action against animal welfare violations up to and including termination of employees," Foster Farms said in a written statement. "Foster Farms is reinforcing animal welfare training companywide and in its plants."
The advocacy group, based in West Hollywood, sent two investigators to work at the plants, and they gathered hours of footage in March and April at a facility where chicks are raised for slaughter, and another where adult chickens are killed and prepared for market.
"The cruelty that we documented at Foster Farms was ongoing. It was widespread and it was rampant," said Vandhana Bala, general counsel for the group. The three-minute video, she said, was just "a representative sample" of the behavior recorded at the facilities.
One of the group's investigators reported the situation to his supervisor and to a company hot line but saw no remedial action, Bala said.
In its complaint, the organization cited "an ongoing pattern of criminal animal cruelty that was permitted to go unchecked and uncorrected by Foster Farms management."
A spokesman for the Fresno County Sheriff's Office said the case has been referred to the agency's agricultural crimes task force.
The revelations come amid a campaign by the group, alleging that the poultry company's certification by the American Humane Assn. masks poor animal welfare practices.
Mark Stubis, a spokesman for the American Humane Assn., said organization officials met Wednesday with Foster Farms regarding the content of the video, which he called "surprising."
"Foster Farms has worked very hard to create a culture of humane treatment," Stubis said. "In the three years that we've been working with them, they have never failed an audit. This is an extremely rare situation for us."
Those audits are conducted by independent auditors that check about 200 standards established by the association, he said.
"The certification program can't stop one or two employees who break those rules," Stubis said. "We certainly expect any certified farm to take immediate corrective action against anyone who abuses animals."
Bala said the organization may take other legal action against the company and the association regarding the certification logo displayed on chicken meat.
"It's a betrayal of both the animals and the consumers who are purchasing these products based on the existence of that certified humane logo," Bala said.