A southern Minnesota dairy farmer accused of selling contaminated raw milk that sickened 15 people has a contempt of court hearing Monday in a Sibley County courtroom.
State Agriculture Department officials say Michael Hartmann has ignored a court-approved embargo placed on his food. Criminal charges are rare in food-borne illness cases, but state authorities have said the case could warrant felony charges.
So far, however, the contempt of court allegation is the state's most serious legal action in the eight-month-old case.
The state has has cited Hartmann with a long list of violations, most of which the Gibbon-area farmer denies.
Hartmann could not be reached for comment for this story. But in the past, he's said his products have not sickened anyone.
However, the Health Department has linked at least 15 illnesses, including E. coli and campylobacter, to Hartmann's unpasteurized milk and other products.
The state's allegations are serious, said Michael Osterholm, director of infectious disease research at the University of Minnesota.
"Minnesota citizens are being put at risk needlessly because of this man's irresponsible actions," said Osterholm, who has investigated food illness cases worldwide for more than 35 years.
Following the state's embargo of Hartmann's products this summer, the state identified a second round of illnesses traced to his products. Agriculture officials also confiscated about 400 gallons of Hartmann dairy products that his brother, Roger Hartmann, delivered to a house in Minnetonka. They discovered the embargoed inventory had disappeared from Hartmann's farm.
Osterholm said the case represents the most flagrant disregard of the law he's ever seen.
"This man has basically thumbed his nose at the law in every way," Osterholm said. "And he does not care if he harms individuals for his own personal profit. To me I can't understand how anything other than criminal would be appropriate in terms of charges against him right now."
But so far there have not been any criminal charges against Hartmann.
Minnesota Department of Agriculture attorney Doug Spanier would not talk specifically about the Hartmann case, but he did list some of the factors he looks at in deciding whether to pursue criminal charges.
"We really have to look at what happened," Spanier said. "If people got sick versus not getting sick, what is the history with the department, the history of compliance, things like that we have to look at to see what [is] the best avenue to take."
State officials are on record saying that Hartmann has broken the law repeatedly. In a contempt of court brief, state officials say Hartmann "has consistently refused to comply with food law for more than a decade."
State officials revoked Hartmann's Grade A dairy license 10 years ago when inspectors found unsanitary conditions on his farm. In 2002, he was charged and later convicted of selling uninspected meat. A couple years later, state officials caught Roger Hartmann illegally selling milk from a farm in the Twin Cities area.
CRIMINAL CHARGES RARE
Last December, Roger Hartmann was again caught in the Twin Cities selling milk that he and his brother produced. State authorities could still file criminal charges, but if they don't, it won't be a big surprise to some experts.
"The level of prosecution in food-borne illness cases is practically nil," said Fred Pritzker, a Minneapolis attorney who specializes in seeking damages for food contamination victims.
"In all the years that I've been doing this I have yet to see a manufacturer, producer, actually prosecuted and convicted for any outbreaks," he said.
The most recent example is the salmonella-contaminated food products sold two years ago by the Peanut Corporation of America, Pritzker said. Nine deaths and hundreds of illnesses are attributed to its tainted peanut butter and other items.
Pritzker represented the families of three Minnesota residents killed in the outbreak. He said even though emails show company officials knew the peanut butter could be contaminated, a two-year federal criminal probe has failed to indict anyone.
"If that case doesn't get prosecuted then really I think it's sending the signal that they're not going to do much of anything unless somebody basically says 'I want to harm someone'," he said.
Pritzker said prosecutors are reluctant to tackle cases unless they can win big sentences. In some cases food law only provides misdemeanor penalties.
A proposed law in Congress would change that. Co-sponsored by Minnesota Senators Klobuchar and Franken, it would impose felony sentences on anyone who knowingly contaminates the food supply.