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State vet admits tipping off Butterball about animal abuse probe

Updated at 3:23 a.m. ET: A top North Carolina state veterinarian admitted Wednesday that she had tipped off poultry producer Butterball that video footage of alleged animal abuse had been secretly filmed at one of its farms before a police raid.

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.

Mason pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice and resist, delay, obstruct a public officer after she admitted to tipping off a veterinarian at the facility that the undercover video had been recorded, NBC station WNCN reported.

She appeared before Judge John Horne, Jr. on Wednesday and was sentenced to 45 days in the Hoke County Jail. Her jail sentence was suspended in exchange for 12 months' unsupervised probation.

Six workers at the plant in Shannon, N.C., also face charges after animal rights activists recorded three weeks of harrowing footage of 90-pound tom turkeys being dragged, beaten and bloodied.

Three workers were charged with misdemeanors in connection with the case and NBC station WNCN reported that sheriff's deputies were searching for three others.

Hoke County Sheriff Hubert Peterkin told WNCN that the arrests were just the beginning. "It's probably going to be more, from what we're looking at," he said.

4 workers 'terminated'
Butterball issued a statement saying four employees have been fired and two others suspendend, WNCN reported.

"As the result of Butterball's own internal investigation into this matter, Butterball terminated four employees last month due to their failure to comply with the company’s animal care and well-being standards," the statement said.
 
"Butterball understands that three of these former associates have been charged with animal cruelty today. In addition, Butterball understands that two current Butterball associates have been charged with animal cruelty. Butterball has immediately suspended these two current associates pending final disciplinary action," it added.

An investigator from animal rights group, Mercy For Animals, shot the footage after choosing the factory at random. It was handed to the Hoke County Sheriff’s Office in mid-December.

Read more news at NBC station WNCN

Nathan Runkle, founder and executive director of Mercy For Animals, called this a landmark case because few animal cruelty charges are filed regarding poultry.

The organization has instigated a dozen similar investigations, five of which have led to criminal or civil charges, he said.

“There was no insider information of abuse at Butterball which leads us to believe that this kind of animal neglect is rampant,” Runkle said. “Unfortunately, every time we send an investigator they emerge with shocking evidence of animal abuse.”

Many birds euthanized
Six detectives, two veterinarians and two animal welfare experts raided the farm, according to a release from the Hoke County Sheriff’s Office.

During the raid, veterinarians determined that many of the birds needed to be euthanized.

Earlier story: Butterball turkey factory raided after abuse claims

WNCN was unable to reach Mason for comment Wednesday, but last month she said in a statement, "Nobody at the department was aware of the actions I took."

An investigation found that Mason acted alone and without the knowledge and consent of her superiors at the Department of Agriculture.

In her statement, Mason said the “rationale” for her actions “was to immediately curtail avian abuse.”

In a statement from the Deptartment of Agriculture officials said Mason's action was out of character for her and that she had a reputation for honesty and integrity. Officials added that the information Mason shared with the Butterball employee was "received fourth-hand through Department employees."

Butterball accounts for 20 percent of the country's turkey production, according to the company’s website, and is known for its Turkey Talk-Line, which fields 100,000 calls around Thanksgiving.

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Reuters and NBC News contributed to this report.