By Karl Plume
CHICAGO (Reuters) - Foster Farms LLC, one of the top U.S. chicken producers, has suspended five workers as it investigates claims of animal abuse at some of its Fresno, California, facilities, the company said on Wednesday.
The company's internal investigation follows the recent release of hidden-camera footage by an animal rights group, Mercy For Animals, that allegedly showed workers punching chickens, mistreating young chicks and apparently scalding live birds in hot water to remove their feathers.
The group's investigators took jobs at three Foster Farms production facilities and a slaughter house and covertly gathered the footage in March and April, said Matt Rice, director of investigations at Mercy for Animals.
Tony Botti, a spokesman for the Fresno County Sheriff's office, said it was investigating the alleged abuse.
Privately held Foster Farms said in a statement that it was cooperating with authorities as it conducted its own investigation.
The California-based company also said it had suspended five employees in connection with the probe. The employees were not identified.
The American Humane Association (AHA), which audits Foster Farms operations and certifies its products as humanely raised, said it was also investigating the matter.
Foster Farms has never failed an annual AHA audit in the three years that its has been participating in its "American Humane Certified" program, said AHA spokesman Mark Stubis.
Livestock and poultry producers and retailers have come under increased scrutiny as consumer demand for humanely raised and animal-drug free food grows.
Foster Farms earlier this month said it plans to largely eliminate antibiotics used to treat humans from its poultry products, joining other top producers including Tyson Foods Inc.
(Editing by Tom Brown)