Animal-rights group accuses Foster Farms of abusing chickens

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Foster Farms, one of the largest poultry processors in the West, has suspended five employees in the wake of an undercover video by an animal rights group showing workers allegedly mistreating animals at one of the company’s two processing plants in Fresno and several ranches in the area.

The group, Mercy For Animals, released a video Wednesday that shows workers “beating and throwing chickens and ripping out their feathers for fun,” representatives said. The video, narrated by former television game show host and animal rights advocate Bob Barker, was secretly taped by two Mercy For Animals investigators who worked for the poultry company over the last several months.

Much of the video footage is taken during the shackle line where workers must hang the chickens, upside down, on a moving line. One worker appears to be throwing the poultry onto the moving line. Another worker is shown pulling the chickens’ feathers off.

In a statement released Wednesday, Foster Farms responded to the allegations.

“It is Foster Farms’ policy to take disciplinary action against animal welfare violations up to and including termination of employees who do not follow animal welfare policies,” the statement says. “Foster Farms is reinforcing animal welfare training company wide on its ranches and in its plants.”

Matt Rice, Mercy For Animals’ director of investigations, called the abuses some of the worst he has seen.

“The workers appear to be taking pleasure in torturing the animals,” Rice said.

Veterinarian Armaiti May said Mercy for Animals’ findings were “some of the more horrifying, egregious abuse and neglect I have ever witnessed in my 10-year career.”

May, who practices in Los Angeles, called the shackle line “inherently cruel and inhumane,” as it can lead to extreme pain and distress, dislocations, broken bones, bruises and internal injuries for the birds. She attended a late-morning press conference on behalf of Mercy For Animals.

Birds that were not properly attached on the line often missed the kill step and are still alive when immersed in scalding hot water to remove feathers.

“It shouldn’t have to take a veterinarian to point out that scalding animals alive is cruel,” she said.

The intentionally cruel acts that workers engaged in, such as punching and throwing chickens and ripping out their feathers, are not only inhumane but illegal under California law, she said.

“I have no doubt, as a doctor of veterinary medicine, that these birds experienced an extreme amount of pain, suffering and misery during their short lives,” she said.

Foster Farms officials said that the company is cooperating with the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office while conducting its own investigation.

Foster Farms says it suspended the employees because they were either directly involved in abusive behavior or witnessed the incidents without reporting the violations to management.

Rice, however, said the investigator reported the acts of cruelty to a supervisor on May 20 and to a company hotline on May 21, but nothing was done. That’s when the organization filed a complaint with the Sheriff’s Office.

Sheriff’s spokesman Tony Botti said the department is investigating the complaint.

“The Fresno County Sheriff’s Office is aware of the allegations Mercy For Animals is making against Foster Farms and we are looking into the matter,” Botti said in a statement. “The investigation is ongoing and detectives do not have any specific details to release at this time.”

Rice said video was taken at Foster Farms’ plant at 900 W. Belgravia Ave. in southwest Fresno. The company operates a second plant on South Cherry Avenue in west Fresno. Its main facility is in Livingston.

Mercy For Animals says it focused on Foster Farms, in part, because of its relationship with the American Humane Association, the nation’s oldest humane organization, protecting children, pets and farm animals against cruelty, abuse and neglect.

Foster Farms earned the organization’s certification in 2013 for adhering to strict animal welfare practices. Rice said the organization wanted to make sure those standards were being followed at Foster Farms.

“People have a right to know where their food comes from,” Rice said.

Mark Stubis, spokesman for the American Humane Association, said the organization was surprised at what was on the video.

“We know that Foster Farms has worked hard to create a culture of humane treatment and they have not failed an audit of their certification in the three years we have been working with them,” Stubis said. “We are working with the producer to find out what happened and to make sure corrective actions are taken.”

Staff writer Sarah Anderson contributed to this report. Robert Rodriguez: (559) 441-6327, @FresnoBeeBob

Foster Farms in the news

March 2013 Foster Farms becomes the first major poultry company in the West to be certified by American Human Association for raising its chickens humanely.

March 2013 The first cases of salmonella linked to Foster Farms chicken are reported. The number of cases continues to rise more than a year later, with at least 634 people affected.

Oct. 11, 2013 The U.S. Department of Agriculture clears Foster Farms as fit to operate after giving company four days to show it had corrected the problems that led to the outbreak.

Oct. 2013 Foster Farms places full-page ads in major Western newspapers and improves its food safety handling practices.

Jan. 8, 2014 Federal inspectors suspend processing at the Livingston plant when cockroaches are found. The plant is closed for three days before reopening for a day.

June 16, 2014 Foster Farms celebrates its 75th anniversary.

Sept. 9, 2014 President and CEO Ron Foster steps down, remaining an owner and board member.

June 1, 2014 - Foster Farms launches its first lines of organic and antibiotic-free chicken.

June 17, 2015 Foster Farms accused by Mercy For Animals of inhumane treatment of chickens during processing. Five workers suspended by the company.