With Thanksgiving days away, the federal government is being asked to step into a dispute involving the nation’s largest turkey producer and one of its most provocative animal welfare groups.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission, saying Butterball should be stopped from labeling its turkeys as “humanely raised.”

The labeling is “deceptive and misleading,” PETA asserted in its complaint Wednesday, alleging that the turkeys suffer, in part, because the labeling standards, set by the American Humane Association, allow conditions that cause “acute and chronic pain,” something the association firmly denies.


Turkeys in a pen at a farm in New Jersey. PETA has called on the Federal Trade Commission to look into “humanely raised” labeling for Butterball turkeys. (Craig Warga/Bloomberg)

The trade commission was provided with links to undercover videos and investigations of Butterball facilities done by Virginia-based PETA and Los Angeles-based Mercy for Animals. The footage shows baby male turkeys being ground alive. The groups say female turkeys are more profitable since they lay eggs for weeks until they are slaughtered. The videos also show baby turkeys getting the top of their beaks sliced off, which keeps them from pecking one another in crowded conditions.

Butterball declined to discuss the specific concerns raised by PETA but defended its treatment of turkeys.

“For more than 60 years, Butterball has been proud to provide customers and consumers with safe, wholesome and nutritious products,” the company said in a statement. “We are proud of our certification from AHA and believe that, as the country’s oldest animal advocacy and protection organization, they are uniquely positioned to help Butterball strengthen its animal care and well-being program.”

Butterball also said it meets or exceeds regulations set by several other organizations and has created its own independent animal care program that is staffed by respected academic experts in the animal-welfare field.

The Humane Association defended its program standards, saying it believes the complaint was timed to “mislead Americans who are responsibly choosing humanely certified products this holiday season.”

The association also said the complaint is “inaccurate, baseless and riddled with patently false information.” However, the group would not discuss whether conditions captured in the undercover videos were permitted under its program.

The humanely raised label is important to consumers, according to a September 2013 national survey done by the association. In it, 95 percent of respondents said the “humanely raised” label was “the highest in importance over organize, natural and antibiotic-free labels.”

Mary Engle, director of FTC’s division of advertising practices, confirmed that the commission received the complaint.

Engle said the commission reviews complaints regarding potential violations of Section 5 of the FTC Act, which gives the commission the power to take action against companies if they are found to be using “unfair or deceptive” practices “affecting commerce.”

Though the commission always confirms receipt of complaints, the rest of the process is “non-public,” Engle said. If the commission decides to investigate, that will not be announced.

Informal agreements with companies to change their practices are sometimes “memorialized” in a letter that is given to both parties.

“They may choose to make that public, but we generally do not publicize that,” Engle said.