Southern Minnesota dairy farmer Michael Hartmann has asked a district court judge to remove a state embargo on the sale of raw milk food products from his farm.
The state Agriculture Department prohibited off-farm sales after health officials traced an E. coli outbreak which sickened eight people to the Hartmann farm. Hartmann argued in court Thursday that his farm is not the source of the illnesses.
The state prohibited off-farm sales of Hartmann products after investigators searched the farm on May 26. Samples taken from animals, manure and other sources during that search contained the same strain of E. coli as found in the sick people.
The embargo prohibits Hartmann from transporting items like milk, cheese, butter, eggs and meat to locations off the farm for sale. Customers can still buy food from Hartmann if they actually go to his farm.
Hartmann asked Dakota County District Court Judge Rex Stacey to lift the sales embargo. The judge did not act on the motion Thursday, but did require the state to turn over certain test results.
Michael Hartmann contends the court should throw out the embargo on constitutional grounds. He says the Minnesota Constitution gives farmers broad rights to sell their products.
Specifically, he cites a provision that says state residents can legally sell farm products they produce, even if they don't have a license.
The state Agriculture Department's Nicole Neeser has said in the past, however, that those products still must meet basic food safety requirements. The state says the Hartmann products fail to meet that standard on several counts; most importantly, that conditions on the farm are unsanitary.
They ordered him to stop storing chemicals, grease, lubricants and WD-40 over food grade products, for example. Investigators also say they found manure on many surfaces in the milking parlor.
Hartmann's bottom line on the cleanliness issue is that the state has failed to find the particular strain of E. coli which caused the eight people to get sick in any Hartmann food product.
State investigators admit that's true, but say that's not unusual in E. coli investigations. They say typically by the time the illnesses come to their attention, the food which caused the problem has either been consumed or thrown out.
State officials say they did find harmful E. coli in Hartmann cheese samples, even though it's not the specific strain indentified in the outbreak.
The state's best evidence in the case may be the unusual genetic fingerprint of the E. coli O157:H7 which caused the illnesses. Investigators call it a rare version of the bug. In fact, the Hartmann case is the first time it's been found in Minnesota.
State officials say the fact that it turned up in both the victims and in Hartmann's animals proves his farm is the source of the illnesses.
Hartmann responds that E. coli O157:H7 lives in cows, and can be found in about one-third of feedlot animals. He says the presence of the dangerous bacteria on his farm is simply a result of it being a dairy farm.
But with his sales banned for the time being, Hartmann says he's dumping the milk his cows produce on his fields.