The state's raw milk investigation apparently has expanded beyond the farm linked to an E. coli outbreak that sickened eight people.
State investigators have contacted a Minneapolis business that serves as a selling point for locally produced foods. They also have searched the home of a customer of the farm linked to the E. Coli outbreak.
The original raw milk investigation centered on the Michael Hartmann dairy farm near Gibbon, blamed for the E. coli outbreak. The state now is investigating a business called Traditional Foods Minnesota.
On the Traditional Foods website, the list of businesses selling at its Minneapolis location includes the name of at least one dairy producer advertising raw milk.
A farmer who sells at Traditional Foods Minnesota said the state investigation is linked to the raw milk issue. But so far the Minnesota Agriculture Department has not indicated there is a link.
"It is an on-going investigation," said Nicole Neeser, who is leading the agriculture department's raw milk E. coli probe.
The state also executed a search warrant at the home of a Twin Cities resident who is a Hartmann customer, though not sickened in the E. coli outbreak. Neeser wouldn't say what investigators were looking for there, but it appeared attention is turning to the distribution system for raw milk.
Consumers can legally buy unpasteurized milk if they pick it up at the farm where it's produced. But some farmers deliver raw milk to drop sites in the city, a practice the state said is illegal.
Neeser said the state does not know where those sites are. People using them are careful to conceal their locations, she said.
The state acts against drop sites only when investigators have concrete information, like an address and name, Neeser said.
Neeser also said the state has warned stores that sell raw milk products like unapproved types of cheese to stop selling the products.
The state investigation has made producers nervous.
"Oh, it's hurt us quite a bit. A lot of people are scared," said a raw milk dairy producer who agreed to talk with MPR News on condition of anonymity for fear of becoming a target of investigation. "We're doing a lot of thinking right now. How we're going to go forward with this."
The farmer, who said the use of drop sites is a common practice, said he may leave the business.
The state alleges that Hartmann used drop sites to deliver raw milk and that eight people got E. coli infections, from consuming his dairy products or being around people who did. The E. coli strain found in the victims was also found on the Hartmann farm. In a statement, Michael Hartmann said he does not believe his dairy products caused the illnesses.
One group supporting the state's moves on raw milk is the Minnesota Milk Producers Association. Executive Director Bob Lefebvre said the group's members pasteurize their milk to kill harmful pathogens like E. coli. He said farmers are concerned publicity from the Hartmann raw milk case will taint them as well.
"They don't want people to be thinking that, oh, these farmers are just like this Hartmann guy," said Lefebvre.
Lefebvre said so far there's no evidence pasteurized milk sales have suffered. But he said the state should toughen raw milk enforcement.
But raw milk supporters say the state should leave them alone. Kevin Conners of Stillwater likes to eat cheese and butter made from unpasteurized milk.
"I find it ridiculous that the government has to get their hands in everything, that they're going to be my protector," said Conners. "The people that buy raw dairy products, they've done their research and they believe it's the best choice for their family."
The state says investigators will continue to look for anyone selling raw milk illegally. And it plans to launch a educational campaign warning farmers they face legal trouble if they're caught delivering raw milk.
(MPR reporter Ambar Espinoza contributed to this report.)