Officials Issue Clean Bill of Health To Willet Dairy


The state team assessing Willet included veterinarian Dr. Paul Virkler, who had worked for Willet as a consultant prior to the assessment, visiting several times per year. Jessica Ziehm, a spokeswoman for the New York Department of Agriculture, said that the members of the team assembled were all considered experts in their fields, but she did not know if the department was aware of Virkler's relationship with Willet when he was picked for the team. She also said that because of Willet's size and location near a major veterinary college in Ithaca, New York, "We would certainly be hard-pressed to find a professional in the dairy industry in New York who doesn't have a relationship with Willet Dairy. It's one of the largest dairies in the state. Almost everybody in the dairy industry has been to Willet a time or two."

Ziehm also stressed that the assessment had been done at the request of the dairy. "It's not part of our regulatory function. It's more of a service we do for farmers."

Simultaneously, the Finger Lakes Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was conducting its own investigation of Willet Dairy because of a complaint filed by Mercy for Animals and because of the Nightline reports. The SPCA conducted its investigation on behalf of the Cayuga County District Attorney.

The Finger Lakes SPCA had opened its investigation several months prior to the state's, in the fall of 2009, after receiving video and a 40-plus page complaint from Mercy for Animals. SPCA Chief Joshua Crane did not visit Willet Dairy, however, until February 4, 2010, more than a week after the Nightline broadcast and two days after Willet CEO Lyndon Odell had called the D.A.'s office to ask about the status of the investigation.

SPCA Chief Joshua Crane inspected the dairy and then issued a report, which was completed in December 2010. The SPCA report cites the New York state report in saying that Willet exceeds industry standards for animal well-being. It says that Crane's inspection led him to conclude that living conditions at Willet were "extremely sanitary."

The SPCA report lists "Dr. Paul Verkler" as a "consultant who visits the farm 2-3 times per year." The state team that assessed Willet Dairy included a "Dr. Paul Vikler." Both the state agriculture department and the Finger Lakes SPCA confirmed that the individual named is actually Dr. Paul Virkler, who works at the Cornell College of Veterinary Medicine in Ithaca. The SPCA's Crane confirmed that Virkler was considered a Willet consultant at the time of the February 2010 SPCA inspection.

"It does appear as though Dr. Virkler was both of a member of the [state] team and a consulting veterinarian for Willet Dairy," said Crane. "Any questions as to why he may have been selected for these positions and/or the extent to which he contributed his expertise would best be directed to [the state] or Dr. Virkler himself." Dr. Virkler declined comment when contacted by ABC News.

The SPCA report concludes that Mercy for Animals' allegations about neglected injuries, "downed" cows and mistreatment of calves are unwarranted, noting that the mortality rate for newborn calves at Willet is 1 to 2 percent, far below the national average of 7.5 to 10 percent.

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