Koch Foods on Wednesday denied its Chattanooga processing plant is inhumanely treating chickens by scalding the birds alive and shackling them upside-down before slicing open their throats, wings and chests while still conscious.
The allegations by animal protection group Mercy for Animals were directed at a key player in an industry that employs nearly 20,000 people in Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia, with four plants in Hamilton County.
The Los Angeles-based group released covert video that it said was taken inside the Koch Chattanooga plant and another operation in Mississippi, complaining that workers are also cruelly throwing chickens and hiding cockroaches from federal inspectors.
The video, narrated by The Simpsons co-creator Sam Simon, demanded that Illinois-based Koch adopt new animal welfare standards to prevent future abuse.
Koch, which employs about 600 people in Chattanooga, termed the video "inaccurate and out-of-context depictions" of its Southside plant.
"The company will not stand for a violation of the important processes and standards that we have in place. Koch Foods will remain vigilant to ensure it continues to operate in a humane, clean and safe manner," said company Chief Executive Joe Grendys in a statement
• 2,000 - Poultry jobs in Hamilton County
• $750 million - Annual wages in Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia
• $5 billion - Estimated annual economic impact
Source: U.S. Poultry and Egg Association
Koch said that 16 U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors work on each production shift to ensure a safe product in accordance with federal regulations.
"Koch Foods also is regularly audited on its animal welfare practices by an independent auditor," the company said, adding that an audit two months ago found no violations of animal welfare practices in the live or processing operations in Chattanooga.
Mercy for Animals also called to task Atlanta-based restaurant company Chick-fil-A, saying it's a buyer from Koch. But Chick-fil-A said Koch hasn't supplied it with chicken since April 2013. Chick-fil-A said it supports the humane treatment of animals and doesn't condone their mistreatment at any point along the supply chain.
The chicken industry is big business in Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia, fueling an estimated economic impact of $5 billion annually, according to the U.S. Poultry and Egg Association. Annual wages are put at $750 million, a 2012 study shows.
In Hamilton County alone, Koch Foods and Pilgrims Pride employ a total of almost 2,000 people.
Alan Darer of Mercy for Animals said in a Nashville press conference that the group documented chickens having their wings and legs broken as workers hastily and violently shackled them upside down. A video prepared by Mercy for Animals shows birds being sent through an electrified vat of water causing painful shocks while leaving them fully conscious, he said.
"Sadly, there are no federal laws protecting chickens from even the worst forms of abuse while living their miserable lives on factory farms," Darer said.
He said chickens have been bred to grow so large and so quickly that "many of them become crippled under their own weight. Unable to walk, many die of dehydration when they can't reach water."
Darer said USDA workers at plant sites "are there looking for food safety issues" such as contamination.
However, the USDA said its Food Safety and Inspection Service takes the humane handling and slaughter of animals seriously.
"The agency is assessing the [Koch] situation to determine if there were any violations of applicable laws and regulations and will address them accordingly," said spokeswoman Alexandra Tarrant.
Last year, Tennessee legislators enacted what critics dubbed an "ag-gag" bill they charged was intended to prevent investigations similar to the Mercy for Animals undercover operations as well as one that targeted Tennessee Walking Horse industry abuse.
Republican Gov. Bill Haslam vetoed the bill after getting deluged with complaints, including a plea from country music star Carrie Underwood.
Darer said Mercy for Animals belongs to a coalition of groups that oppose so-called "ag-gag" laws.
"We feel that these are attempts to keep the public in the dark ... making it even harder to document the types of abuses in these two facilities," he said.
Matt Rice, Mercy for Animals director of investigations, said the video documented a Koch manager at the Chattanooga slaughterhouse describing cockroach manifestations that had happened in the recent past and then showing pictures of it on his phone to the group's investigator.
He said the group put that piece in the video "to highlight the culture of actively hiding problems from the USDA."
In Mississippi, Rice said, he believed the group documented cruelty that its officials thought was a clear violation of Mississippi state law.
"We went to the sheriff there. They sent a deputy and he told them to either euthanize the animals or provide food and water," he said, saying the sheriff's office and local prosecutor decided not to pursue charges.
Thomas Super, the National Chicken Council's vice president of communications, said Mercy for Animals promotes a vegan diet of abstaining from the use of animal products and has targeted other industries such as dairy and duck farms.
He said some of the Koch video appears to have been taken as early as last February.
"It makes you wonder about motives. If they were really concerned why did they sit on a response for nine months," Super said.
Koch Foods said it has operated in the poultry business for more than 25 years, and it trains its processing employees on animal welfare practices and the importance of operating in a precise manner.
"The chicken processing business is a highly regulated industry with well-established industry processing procedures," Grendys said.
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