ButterballWhen consumers think of the Butterball brand, they think turkey. But on Thursday, unappetizing images of poultry in peril emerged that might cause many Butterball buyers to ponder what really went on before their holiday turkey dinners reached their plates.

Animal rights group Mercy for Animals went undercover and caught workers at a North Carolina Butterball-affiliated turkey facility on video abusing the birds. The footage reveals that workers stomped, kicked, threw, and dragged the animals.

If that's not enough to cause you to lose your lunch, some turkeys had untreated wounds and injuries such as open sores, infections, rotting eyes, and broken bones.

Butterball abuseMercy for Animals presented the footage and filed a formal legal complaint with local law enforcement, resulting in a warrant and raid on the facility Thursday morning.

In response, Butterball said it's working with Hoke County officials regarding the allegations, and that it has "zero tolerance" for cruelty to its birds. It also said it's conducting its own investigation, both internally and through third-party audits.

Butterball claims it trains employees to use humane treatment and has a company policy in place requiring workers to report any abuse they witness. Obviously, though, something went terribly wrong at Butterball; purported company policy and the images caught on video are at odds.

Supply and Demand (for Better Animal Treatment)

Major companies like Butterball need to be on the ball when it comes to eradicating such behavior. Consumers are becoming increasingly aware of animal welfare in various supply chains.

In November, The Humane Society of the United States filed a complaint against Smithfield Foods (SFD) regarding its continued use of gestation crates for sows. The Humane Society saw McDonald's (MCD) as guilty by association; Smithfield is a major supplier of the fast-food giant's pork.

Smithfield has since recommitted to its timeline to phase out the inhumane crates by 2017, a vow it had previously put off two years ago.

McDonald's must really be getting the picture, because later in November, it ditched egg supplier Sparboe after Mercy for Animals caught video footage of that farm's ugly treatment of birds.

Good Treatment, Better Business

If you think it's frivolous for companies like Butterball and McDonald's to care, think again. It's economics.

Studies have shown that aggregate meat demand has decreased as consumers have become more aware of animal welfare issues in factory farming.

For example, last year, researchers Glynn Tonsor and Nicole Olynk, agricultural economists at Kansas State University and Purdue University, released a study showing that without the increase in animal welfare media coverage from 1999 through 2008, pork and poultry demand would have been 2.7% and 5% higher, respectively.

An agribusiness survey has even shown consumers' increasing distaste regarding inhumane treatment at factory farms. More than 40% of those surveyed stated that the U.S. is "on the wrong track" in terms of food production, and 20% are uncomfortable with the soundness of the food supply here in the U.S.

Making Moral Progress

Gandhi once said, "The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated." More American consumers seem to realize that there's no good reason why animals should be abused and tortured before they make their way to Americans' plates.

Surely American companies can innovate to cut inhumane treatment from their operations and supply chains. They'll have to, as more and more consumers are asking for that kind of moral progress.

Motley Fool analyst Alyce Lomax does not own shares of any of the companies mentioned. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of McDonald's.



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