By Colleen Jenkins
WINSTON-SALEM, North Carolina (Reuters) - Authorities searched a Butterball turkey farm in North Carolina on Thursday after an animal protection group alleged that birds there were being neglected and abused, police said.
The search came after the nonprofit Mercy For Animals provided law enforcement with secretly recorded video footage that showed live turkeys being kicked, thrown, dragged by the neck and wings and hit with some sort of stick or bar.
The video was collected during several weeks in November and December by an activist who got a job at the company's turkey semen collection facility in Shannon, North Carolina, said Nathan Runkle, the organization's executive director.
Butterball, headquartered in Garner, North Carolina, is the largest producer of turkey products in the United States, according to the company's website. The company says it accounts for 20 percent of the country's total turkey production.
In a statement released on Thursday, the company said it was taking the allegations seriously. In addition to working with authorities, Butterball said it was performing its own internal and third-party audits.
"Butterball has a zero tolerance policy for any mistreatment of our birds or the failure to immediately report mistreatment of our birds by any associates," the company said.
"Employees found in violation of Butterball's animal welfare policies will be subject to immediate termination."
No arrests had been made in connection with a search warrant as of Thursday afternoon, said Hoke County Sheriff's Captain John Kivett. Veterinarians were examining more than 2,000 turkeys at the farm.
"The investigation is still ongoing," Kivett said.
Runkle said the Chicago-based Mercy For Animals contacted local authorities with the results of its undercover investigation and provided a complaint outlining what the group alleged were violations of the state's animal cruelty laws.
The undercover worker was interviewed by authorities before the search, Kivett said.
"We commend law enforcement for taking swift and decisive action on this important matter," Runkle told Reuters. "We hope that the company will be held criminally accountable for the suffering that they've imposed on these animals."
(Editing by Greg McCune)