Producer Anna Schecter from the Brian Ross Investigative Unit accepted the honor for "Got Milk?" on Saturday in Los Angeles, where the Humane Society celebrated the 25th anniversary of the Genesis Awards, which recognize individuals and media organizations for raising awareness of animal–protection issues.
"Got Milk?" featured undercover video from Willet Dairy in East Genoa, New York, that showed cows being dragged, workers kicking and hitting animals, a worker digging his fingers into the eye socket of a cow, and tails and horns being removed without anesthesia. An undercover investigator for the advocacy group Mercy for Animals shot the video while working at the dairy for two months as a mechanic.
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After the Nightline report aired, Willet suspended a worker who can seen on video striking a cow in the head with a wrench, and 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.
The suspended dairy worker, Phil Niles, was ultimately arrested and charged with animal cruelty, to which he pled guilty. He was fined more than $500 and ordered not to be in contact with animals for one year.
The chief executive officer of the Willet Dairy, Lyndon Odell, said his operation produces high-quality milk and does not tolerate the abuse of animals. Odell said that Willet's practices are in accordance with industry standards.
"Our animals are critically important to our well being, so we work hard to treat them well, to treat them medically when they need to be treated, to ensure their lives are good while they're here," said Odell.
Shown the undercover videos, Odell said, "They picked out a few isolated incidents and they're trying to portray them as something that is malicious on our part, that we don't do a good job with our animals."
The Willet Dairy ships 40,000 gallons of milk a day, mostly to New York City. Odell says large dairy operations like his, called "factory farms" by animal rights groups, need the large scale to be able to afford expensive equipment and the necessary workforce.
Animals rights groups say the big operations create abuse. "Every single time that we send investigators undercover into America's factory farms, they emerge with startling evidence of animal cruelty and neglect," said Nathan Runkle, executive director of Mercy for Animals.
"We really think that this goes hand in hand and is inherent in industrial animal agriculture where these animals are really being treated and viewed as little more than production units," he said.
The practice of cutting off the ends of the tails of dairy cows -- known as tail docking -- is found in about half of American dairy farms, according to a 2002 U.S. Department of Agriculture report, although a dairy industry trade group says it is in decline.
The practice was banned in California in 2009 and a bill to prohibit tail docking was introduced in early 2010 in the New York state legislature.
Assembly Member Linda Rosenthal, who introduced the bill in New York's lower house, said the undercover investigation aired by ABC News "was essential in building support for my legislation. . . . [The] graphic imagery shown by ABC helped secure over 35 co-sponsors from across the state."
Rosenthal has reintroduced the bill this year and said she is "confident that we are steadily moving toward banning this shameful behavior."
Genesis Award Winners
"Got Milk" aired on World News with Diane Sawyer and Nightline on January 26, 2010. Additional videos and print stories appeared on the Blotter in January, February and March 2010.
"Nightline is at the cutting edge of exposing the unseen abuses animals endure on factory farms," said Runkle of Mercy for Animals. "With Nightline at the forefront, we are moving closer to the day when state and federal laws protect farmed animals from egregious cruelty and neglect."
Schecter thanked Runkle in her acceptance speech Saturday, and accepted the award on behalf of ABC News Chief Investigative Correspondent Brian Ross, Executive Producer Rhonda Schwartz and Nightline Executive Producer James Goldston.
Nightline was honored in the category of outstanding television news magazine for "Got Milk?". Other 2011 Genesis Award winners included Oprah Winfrey, "The Colbert Report," the film "How To Train Your Dragon," and "Sex and the City" star Kristin Davis, who was honored for her work combating elephant poaching.
"From the first Genesis Awards, in 1986, when Magnum, P.I. was recognized for the line, 'It's wrong to kill dolphins,' it's truly amazing, 25 years later, to look at the variety and caliber of today's Genesis Award honorees, all of whom explore animal protection issues in greater depth and with tremendous creativity," said Beverly Kaskey, executive producer of the annual Genesis Awards, Saturday. "Tonight is a milestone for The Genesis Awards but, more importantly, it's a milestone for all animals and their place in the social and cultural fabric of our daily lives."