Undercover at a Turkey Slaughtering Plant

The alarms rings at 3:45 AM. I reach for the ibuprofen. Without it my hands are too sore and swollen to even close….much less hold a turkey’s legs. Wearing a pair of rubber gloves, cotton gloves and taping them doesn’t help when you’re banging into shackles all day. The flesh is still raw and exposed.

I dress with the video cam that’s become part of my daily outfit carefully hidden and fortify myself with enough food to get through the work day.

When we arrive at House of Raeford the trucks full of live turkeys are already waiting to be unloaded; it’s not even 5:30 AM.

So begins the diary of “Sam”–not his real name–who worked as an undercover investigator for Mercy For Animals (MFA), a national, not for profit animal advocacy organization, earlier this year while employed as a “live hanger” at House of Raeford’s turkey slaughterhouse in Raeford, North Carolina.

House of Raeford Farms Inc., (HORF) headquartered in Raeford is the seventh largest turkey producer in the U.S. with seven facilities in North and South Carolina and Louisiana where it breeds, slaughters and processes chickens and turkeys.

While slaughtering turkeys is no one’s first choice of work, House of Raeford has an especially checkered past. In 2003 a chlorine gas leak at HORF’s Rose Hill chicken plant killed worker Bruce Glover, 39. The following year an ammonia spill at the same plant forced the evacuation of two towns. And last year HORF employee Pedro P. Amaya, 42, was found shot to death in the mobile home he shared with three other poultry workers; the apparent motive robbery, including theft of $60 of pain pills.

A “live hanger” culture exists in slaughter plants says Sam in which there is no recognition of a turkey or chicken being alive or capable of pain.

As they unloaded trucks, workers routinely threw birds from one tier to another, letting them fall 20 feet, swung them around by their feet, “boxed” them as they hung upside down and held them under truck wheels to be crushed.

Workers pulled heads and legs off turkeys when they were stuck in crates and when they weren’t–just for the hell of it.

Workers even sexually abused the birds–inserting their fingers into their cloacae (vaginal cavities) and removing eggs they would throw at each other.

Thanks to current turkey farming methods, the birds that arrived were already injured.

“There were 100 turkeys and chickens dead upon arrival today, many missing feathers with open wounds and with large sores on their feet” writes Sam in his investigator’s diary on January 12, 2007. “I saw a chicken with an abscess on her left leg about the size of a tennis ball and another chicken whose right leg was mashed to the point of bloody pulp and [she was still] hanged by both legs to go down the line.”

Modern turkeys are drugged and bred to grow so quickly that their legs can’t support their own weight and many arrived with legs and knees broken or dislocated says Sam. When you tried to remove them from their crates, their legs would twist completely around, offering no resistance, limp.

The turkeys must have been in a lot of pain reflects Sam, though they don’t cry out. In fact the only sound you hear as you hang them is the “trucks being washed out to go back and get a new load.”

The same day Mercy For Animals released its undercover video, Denny’s, the US’ largest full service restaurant chain and a HORF turkey customer, announced it was suspending its supplier. House of Raeford also condemned the videotaped acts and promised an investigation.

But there is no record that Hoke County prosecutor Kristy Newton launched an investigation or brought cruelty-to-animal charges. Nor did HORF customer Arby’s ever acknowledge the videotaped atrocities. As exposes at Pilgrim’s Pride, KFC’s supplier, Tyson Foods, Perdue and Butterball have revealed, the system of live hanging and conveying birds through a stunner, blade and scalder is inherently cruel, exposing animals to great pain and regularly boiling them alive. Controlled-atmosphere killing (CAK)–a system in which birds are left in their transport crates while oxygen is replaced with nitrogen or argon–is considered more humane and in use in Europe.

But another humane alternative is for people to look at the struggling and terrified turkeys hanging upside down and ask themselves: am I really that hungry?

MARTHA ROSENBERG is staff cartoonist on the Evanston Roundtable. She can be reached at mrosenberg@evmark.org


Martha Rosenberg is an investigative health reporter. She is the author of  Born With A Junk Food Deficiency: How Flaks, Quacks and Hacks Pimp The Public Health (Prometheus).