(USA TODAY) — An anti-animal cruelty group says it has secretly recorded Tyson Foods workers punching, throwing and pulling the heads off of live broiler chickens at one of the mega meat producer’s plants in Mississippi where up to 2.5 million chickens are slaughtered each week.
Vandhana Bala, a lawyer for the group Mercy for Animals, which showed video of the alleged animal cruelty to USA TODAY, said the group filed affidavits in Leake County, Miss. Justice Court on Tuesday alleging misdemeanor animal cruelty by the Springdale, Ark.-headquartered Tyson and six slaughterhouse workers.
The video appears to capture footage of workers on the floor of the slaughterhouse jabbing shackled birds like they were punching bags and tossing birds toward metal shackles like basketballs.
The hidden-camera video, which was taken by a member of Mercy who was hired by Tyson’s to work at the company’s Carthage, Miss. plant, also appears to show an improperly shackled chicken missing the kill blade and having its head ripped off by a slaughterhouse worker. The group also alleges that chickens were dumped on top of each other on a conveyor belt, causing many to suffocate and die under the weight of other birds.
«This is horrific animal abuse no company with morals should support,» said Nathan Runkle, president for Mercy. «Tyson Foods has not only the power, but also the ethical responsibility to end the worst forms of cruelty to animals in its supply chain.»
Worth Sparkman, a Tyson’s spokesman, called the images in the video appalling and said one of the employees seen in the video has been fired for being in violation of the company’s animal handling policy.
«We intend to take corrective action, which may include termination of the (other) workers involved and, if appropriate, may turn this matter over to local authorities,» Sparkman said in a statement to USA TODAY.
Matt Rice, director of investigations for Mercy, said the investigator complained about examples of animal cruelty on an internal Tyson’s ethics and compliance telephone hotline that the company established for workers to express their concerns anonymously.
Rice said the investigator also raised concerns to two different supervisors on three separate occasions on the plant floor that chickens were too frequently going to the kill machine while still conscious, but the concerns were dismissed.
One supervisor told the undercover investigator that broken shackles were resulting in some birds not being properly stunned before moving to the area in the factory where the birds’ necks are slit, Mercy alleges.
«In one instance, a supervisor told him the broken shackles were a maintenance problem, that maintenance knows about the problem, and that maintenance doesn’t ever fix things,» Rice said.
Sparkman, however, said that Tyson’s began investigation of an allegation of animal treatment at the plant last week. It’s unclear if the investigation was spurred by the undercover Mercy activist’s allegations.
The group declined to name the investigator, stating that they were concerned about retaliation against an individual if his name is made public. The affidavits were not immediately available
The investigator gleaned from conversations with his co-workers on the floor that some had built a stony disregard for animal welfare, because they felt it was necessary to have hate for the chickens to keep up with the demanding pace at the Carthage plant, Rice said.
In a conventional plant like the one that Tyson’s operates in Carthage, Miss., birds are unloaded into what is often referred to as a «live hang area,» where they are hung upside down from metal shackles. The quick-moving assembly line process then moves the birds to an area where the birds get a mild electric shock to knock them unconscious before the birds are moved to an area where a blade cuts their throats and the chickens bleed to death.
Mercy officials say the video should spur Tyson to replace the live-shackle method they use to slaughter chickens with an alternative system such as the «controlled atmosphere killing» method one that uses inert gas such as nitrogen or argon to kill the birds before they are pulled out of their crates and hung by their feet to have their throats slit.
The group says a third method known as low atmospheric pressure stunning — one that decreases the oxygen in the atmosphere knocking the chickens unconscious before they are handled by factory workers — would also be preferable to the method used by Tyson’s and vast majority of chicken producers.
If slaughterhouse workers don’t handle the chickens until after the birds are unconscious, the process is less stressful for workers and reduces the chances of intentional or unintentional mistreatment of the birds, the Mercy activists argue.
The gas stunning method has been more widely used in the Europe than in the United States. But some premium chicken companies, including Pennsylvania’s Bell & Evans and California’s Mary’s Chickens have adopted versions of the technology.
«While (controlled atmosphere stunning) and other methods may be worthy of further study, we have not found them to be more humane than conventional electrical stunning,» Sparkman said. «We plan to continue the use of electrical stunning in our poultry plants because we believe it is humane and effective.»
Ashley Peterson, senior vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs at the National Chicken Council, says that controlled atmosphere stunning systems have been effectively used in the industry. But the group won’t call any method more humane than the others.
«Research has not consistently demonstrated one commercially available stunning method to be superior to another,» Peterson told USA TODAY in a statement. «Based on current research and evidence available from North American slaughter facilities, well-managed low voltage and CAS systems are both humane and acceptable methods for stunning of poultry.»
Mercy for Animals has used hidden cameras in the past to take aim at meat company’s and fast food chains to highlight what they say is the widespread problem of animal cruelty in agribusiness.
Most recently, the Los Angeles-based Mercy spotlighted a Tennessee chicken farm that was contracted by Tysons to produce poultry used to make chicken nuggets for McDonald’s.
Secretly-recorded video from Mercy in that case appeared to show operators of the Tennessee poultry farm clubbing small and sickly birds to death. Authorities in Weakley County, Tenn. filed criminal animal cruelty charges against the operators last month, alleging that they «knowingly tortured and maimed» chickens.
Both Tyson’s and McDonald’s expressed concern about what was seen in the video footage, and Tyson’s announced severed its relationship with the farm.
Last year, Tyson’s issued new animal welfare guidelines to thousands hog producer contractors, several weeks after Mercy published secretly-recorded video at a Tyson’s contractor in Oklahoma that showed some animals being struck with bowling balls and others being slammed onto a concrete floor.
Watch: Tyson Caught on Hidden Camera Ripping Heads Off Live Animals (Warning: Graphic Content)