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USDA investigating Tyson chicken cruelty charges

By Will York
On January 22, 2008

UNION CITY - Prosecutors and the U.S. Department of Agriculture say they will investigate an animal rights group's complaints of animal cruelty and employee misconduct at a Tyson Foods chicken processing plant here.People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals posted a video on its Web site late last week outlining what it said was an extensive undercover investigation into how chickens are kept and killed at Tyson's plants in Union City, Tenn., and Cumming, Ga.

The video - shot by who the group said was an undercover operative working in the two plants - shows still-conscious chickens having their heads torn off by workers because an electric shock bath meant to stun the birds stopped working, being cut but not killed by sharp automated knives intended to deliver a quick, painless death, being thrown against the walls and having their legs broken by faulty conveyor belts.

PETA also said workers were seen urinating in the area where the chickens are kept before being slaughtered.

"If a bird's head is stuck, go ahead and just pull it on off and pull the head off," a man in the video appearing to be a supervisor told the undercover worker. "That'd be fine with me."

Agriculture Department investigators will check the two plants for humane handling, spokeswoman Amanda Eamich said.

Eamich said if the company is found to violate industry standards, enforcement actions range from requiring immediate corrections to suspending operations at the plant.

The USDA has asked its inspectors already in the two plants to strengthen their inquiries in all areas of operation, Eamich said.

Obion County Attorney General Tommy Thomas said his office has asked Union City Police to look into PETA's complaint to see if Tyson Foods Inc. had violated a state law against animal cruelty.

The Forsyth County, Ga., district attorney's office is reviewing PETA's allegations of animal cruelty and drug use by employees at the Cumming slaugherhouse, district attorney Penny Penn said Monday.
Tyson Foods' Union City factory and headquarters in Springdale, Ark., would not comment on the allegations but referred to a prepared statement released last week.

"We're committed to proper animal handling in all aspects of our operations and are conducting our own investigation into the claims by PETA, which is well known for its anti-meat agenda," the release said.

Tyson said it will cooperate with the USDA investigation but also said the undercover worker - who worked in the Georgia and Tennessee plants for about a month each last fall - should have alerted supervisors of any animal mistreatment.

The release also said the worker had to undergo training in ethical animal treatment at both locations.

While the company's release didn't address specific PETA complaints, it said the nation's second-largest chicken processor is "leading the industry pursuit of new and improved technology and methods to further enhance animal well-being."

"Some of the videotaped activities we've seen on-line do warrant investigation; however, others are being misrepresented and sensationalized by PETA," the release read.

PETA spokesman Bruce Friedrich said the worker was made to take animal treatment training courses in Tyson's Georgia plant, but never at the Union City plant, where he worked in October and November. He also dismissed Tyson's claim that the group's video is "sensationalist," as the company says in its release.

"We're not asking Tyson to go from chicken to tofu," Friedrich said. "We're asking them to put cameras onto their slaughter lines and send in their own undercover investigators."

Friedrich said PETA is exploring its options for a private civil remedy in Tennessee.

"The video doesn't lie," he said. "Tyson is lying. They know that the investigator complained incessantly to management."

In a letter sent Wednesday to Tyson CEO Richard Bond, PETA writes that when conveyor belt lines broke down, "workers often abused birds for fun, such as by jamming as many as six birds into one shackle."

PETA said it has encouraged the poultry industry to change the way it kills animals from the shock bath and automated knives technique to controlled atmospheric killing - holing the birds up in an oxygen-deprived chamber - which it says is more humane.

The group also asserts that chickens are paralyzed but not rendered unconscious by the water-shock baths.

Dozens of University of Tennessee at Martin students work at the Union City plant located about 10 miles west of campus because it offers a special flexible-hours program for students.

A Tyson employee who spoke to The Pacer on condition of anonymity because employees are not allowed to speak with the media said investigators and Tyson corporate attorneys were at the Union City plant after PETA's investigation was made public last week.

"They told us the shock baths were humane, but the problem was apparently in the evisceration department, where they hang the chickens up by their feet," the part-time employee said. "When you put people in there who are bored and hate their job, there's no telling what can happen."

The employee also said Tyson plays recordings of Muslim prayers while the chickens are being slaughtered because some of the plant's chicken products are exported to predominately Islam-practicing countries. The Islamic doctrine of halal - Arabic for "permissible" - requires slaughtered animals be blessed.

Tyson is a major chicken supplier to KFC and McDonald's. The Union City plant produces much of the processed chicken that ends up in McDonald's Chicken McNuggets.

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