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Terrence O’Keefe, WATT’s content director, provides his perspective on everything from animal agriculture trends that impact our food chain to food-safety related issues affecting chicken and egg production. O’Keefe has covered the poultry industry as an editor for more than a decade and also brings his experience in plant management and poultry production to comment on today’s issues.
Poultry Processing & Slaughter

HSUS says ‘investigator’ not a back-up killer at Butterfield plant

January 8, 2015

Paul Shapiro, vice president for farm animal protection, Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), responded to my recent blog post where I asked the question, “Are animals harmed intentionally in HSUS undercover investigations?” As you probably guessed, Shapiro didn’t think I should have raised this question given the facts at hand. Via email, he said, “Why make such a shocking and irresponsible allegation in your column when there’s no evidence to support it and so much evidence to contradict it?”

I explained that I had tried to raise the question of whether the undercover “investigator” had been assigned the task of backup killer at the Butterfield plant while the video was being recorded at the HSUS teleconference which coincided with the video’s release on YouTube. The press conference ended before my question could be raised. I submitted the question twice via email to HSUS and received two responses and these were included in my blog post, but neither response answered the question directly. As part of an email exchange, Shapiro gave me direct answers to my questions.

O’Keefe: Was there a position on the line at the Butterfield plant for an employee who was responsible for making manual neck cuts on birds that were missed by the automatic kill machine, commonly referred in the industry as a backup killer? This is a follow-up question, If there is a backup killer position on the line, was the employee assigned the backup killer task not on the line when the video was recorded, since they are not visible in the video and Butterfield has said that the position this employee is normally stationed at on the line is vacant in the video? 

Shapiro: There was no backup killer position while our investigator was at Butterfield. We too were surprised by this since it is SOP (standard operating procedure) in many poultry plants. 

O’Keefe: Was the investigator assigned the task of backup killer when the video was recorded? 

Shapiro: No, our investigator was never assigned the duty of backup killing at Butterfield. 

O’Keefe: (This is an additional question, not asked in prior e-mails) Was an investigator the employee who put the live bird in the drain trough (on the video)?

Shapiro: The person who threw the hen into the drain trough and then kicked her into the flow was definitely not an HSUS investigator. Perhaps Butterfield could give you that employee’s name.

If you haven’t guessed, I think the identity of the backup killer at the time the video was recorded is critical. I don’t accept HSUS’s assertion that the video somehow invalidates the current standard practice in the U.S. chicken slaughter industry of hanging live un-stunned birds, using an electric water bath stunner, automated kill machine and then a human backup killer. You can’t say the system just doesn’t work or is unacceptable if you base your argument on the results when one of the components of the system isn’t being used, i.e., the backup killer not being on the line. You could argue poor management at that facility at that point in time, or perhaps willful negligence of the individual assigned the backup killer task, but not that this type of system is unsuitable across the board. 

I asked Butterfield Foods about the status of their investigation and if they could comment on the HSUS allegations. Butterfield Foods’ attorney, Terence M. Fruth, said that the investigation is now focused on payroll records. He explained that Butterfield Foods operates under a union contract and the backup killer position is rated as a premium wage job. Anyone performing the task of backup killer is paid a premium over the base line pay. These pay records may help determine who was assigned to which jobs on certain days, which could be useful once the employees on the video have been identified and they determine the identity of the undercover activist (investigator).

Fruth also stressed that Butterfield has the backup killer as part of its standard operating procedures and that USDA personnel, who are present whenever the plant slaughters birds, have seen the backup killer on the line working. He said that if a backup killer left the line without getting a replacement first, they would be subject to disciplinary action up to and including termination of employment.

I will keep you posted as I learn more.

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