By Colleen Jenkins
WINSTON-SALEM, North Carolina (Reuters) - A top North Carolina state veterinarian was charged on Wednesday with tipping off poultry producer Butterball to alleged animal abuse before police searched a company turkey farm.
Authorities on Wednesday filed two misdemeanor charges against Dr. Sarah Mason, a veterinarian who serves as director of poultry health programs in the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services' veterinary division.
She is accused of telling a Butterball staff veterinarian that an animal protection group had turned over to authorities an undercover video depicting the abuse of turkeys at a company facility, according to the agriculture department.
Department officials said Mason contacted the company's employee on December 23, the same day law enforcement officials had informed the agriculture department about an animal cruelty investigation into a Butterball turkey farm in Shannon, North Carolina.
The investigation began 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.
Butterball, headquartered in Garner, North Carolina, is the largest producer of turkey products in the United States, according to the company's website.
In a statement on Wednesday, the company said five former or current employees had been charged with animal cruelty as a result of the investigation.
The current employees facing charges were suspended pending final disciplinary action, the company said.
"Animal care and well-being are central to who Butterball is as a company, and we are committed to the care and well-being of our turkey flocks," the company said.
Law enforcement officials learned that word of their investigation had leaked to Butterball before a search warrant was executed at the facility on December 29. Mason admitted to being the source of the leak, the agriculture department said.
After being charged with obstruction on Wednesday, she immediately pleaded guilty and was placed on probation for 12 months, Hoke County District Attorney Kristy Newton said in a statement.
On Monday, Mason began a two-week, unpaid suspension ordered by the agriculture department after its own internal investigation into her actions, spokesman Brian Long said. She also must attend ethics courses and meet monthly with her supervisor to review future industry contacts.
Her attorney declined to comment on Wednesday. In a statement issued last month, Mason said she called the Butterball veterinarian because he was a longtime friend, and she wanted to stop any potential animal abuse.
Mason has been employed with the department since 2006 and has no prior disciplinary problems, Long said. He said she had no knowledge of the search warrant plans and didn't pass along any such information to Butterball.
"Her motivation was not to tip off a company but to alert a friend to possible abuse going on," Long said. "It was sort of a case of compassion overriding common sense."
(Editing by Greg McCune)