Officials Issue Clean Bill of Health To Willet Dairy

PHOTO Phil Niles was suspended from his job at Willet Dairy after an ABC News investigative report.
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Authorities have issued a clean bill of health to a New York dairy farm featured in an ABC News investigation about animal abuse, saying that an assessment by experts in the field shows that Willet Dairy exceeds industry standards for hygiene and the treatment of animals.

But the team of experts assigned by the state of New York to assess the dairy included a veterinarian who has worked as a consultant for the dairy.

Authorities also said that a dairy worker seen abusing an animal in the ABC News report had been convicted of animal cruelty, and a second worker who may have abused an animal had fled the area. In addition, the dairy also dropped or changed two different practices seen on undercover video in the ABC News report and considered cruel by animal activists and some veterinarians.

Earlier this month, Nightline won a Genesis Award from the Humane Society of the United States for "Got Milk?", a report on alleged cruelty at dairy farms. The investigation featured undercover video from Willet Dairy that showed cows being dragged, workers kicking and hitting animals, and a worker digging his fingers into the eye socket of a cow. It also showed tails and horns being removed without apparent anesthesia. An undercover investigator for the advocacy group Mercy for Animals shot the video in 2009 while working at the dairy for two months as a mechanic.

CLICK HERE to watch the Nightline report.

After the Nightline report aired in 2010, Willet suspended Phil Niles, a worker who can be seen on video striking a cow in the head with a wrench, while Denver-based Leprino Foods, which produces cheese products used by the national pizza chains Pizza Hut, Papa John's and Domino's, stopped using milk from the dairy.

After the Nightline report aired, Willet Dairy asked the New York State Department of Agriculture to assess conditions at the farm. The state sent a team of experts to the dairy in February 2010. The team of five, which included three veterinarians, concluded that the dairy's cattle herd "surpassed the industry standards" set by the state "for hygiene, body condition and lameness, indicating a high level of animal care and welfare."

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The team's report also said that Willet's four farms "have excellent veterinary resources to monitor animal health and welfare," and that a veterinarian had instructed workers on how to perform dehorning and tail docking with anesthesia. Tail docking is a controversial process in which the lower portion of a cow's tail is removed, and dehorning or disbudding means removing horns from cattle. The American Veterinary Medical Association opposes tail docking, and says if dehorning is performed, anesthesia should be used. The undercover video had shown Willet workers performing the process, apparently without anesthesia.

'Everybody In the Dairy Industry Has Been To Willet'

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.

The report declines to offer an opinion on whether a farm worker who appeared to be sticking his fingers into a cow's eye socket was guilty of cruelty. It suggests that the worker may not actually have been doing so, and states that the SPCA will not take a position on whether the worker should be charged, since he was an illegal immigrant using false papers who fled the country after the Nightline piece aired.

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On September 1, however, Crane arrested a worker seen on the Mercy for Animals video striking an animal over the head and heard recounting earlier incidents of abuse. Phil Niles pled guilty to animal cruelty, a misdemeanor, and was ordered to pay $555 and not to have contact with animals for one year. Niles had worked at Willet for 19 years prior to his suspension and firing.

The report also states that as of January 26, 2010 -- the date of the Nightline broadcast -- Willet Dairy had already started using lidocaine, a local anesthetic, when performing tail docking and dehorning.

District Attorney: Willet 'A Model Commercial Dairy Operation'

A third and separate report on Willet Dairy was authored by Cayuga County District Attorney Jon Budelmann. The DA's report was based on Crane's report and completed one week later, and echoed the positive assessments of Willet offered by both Crane and the New York state experts.

Budelmann wrote that Willet had stopped tail docking altogether, "having voluntarily ceased utilizing this procedure." In addition, Willet has changed its approach to dehorning, "doing it at the youngest possible age and . . . utilizing topical anesthesia, procedures which the employees apparently prefer."

A Willet Dairy employee confirmed to ABC News that the dairy no longer practices tail docking.

CLICK HERE to watch a video about tail docking, and CLICK HERE to watch a video about dehorning.

Like the SPCA and state reports, Budelmann's report concluded that "the conditions at Willet Dairy far exceed expectations for a farming operation."

"Anecdotally," added Budelmann, "this Office has received information from a number of reliable sources familiar with dairy farming operations, who indicated Willet Dairy was held out as a model commercial dairy operation for others to emulate."

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Nathan Runkle, executive director of Mercy for Animals, said his organization's concern was not whether Willet Dairy exceeded the industry standard.

"The industry standard is blatant animal abuse," said Runkle. "This case graphically illustrates that the dairy industry's acceptable standard of animal care includes blatant animal abuse and neglect."

Said Runkle, "Quite frankly, it's standard practice in the dairy industry to subject animals to a lifetime of intensive confinement, mutilate them without painkillers, deprive them of access to the outdoors or basic natural behaviors, and neglect their festering wounds."

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