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State officials expand probe of farm linked to E. coli outbreak

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Minnesota agriculture officials have apparently expanded their investigation of the dairy farm linked to an outbreak of E. coli that has sickened at least eight people.

State investigators went back to the Michael Hartmann farm in Gibbon a second time last Wednesday to collect more samples, confiscate financial records, and document what they allege are unsanitary conditions on the farm.

State health officials have blamed unpasteurized milk from the Hartmann farm for the E. coli outbreak.

State Agriculture Department officials believe the E. coli was contained in Hartmann dairy products sold to the general public.

"The investigators go where the facts lead them, just like any other law enforcement agency. And one of the core elements of the Department of Ag's mission, is to protect the integrity of the food supply," said Agriculture Department communications director Mike Schommer. "That means regulating the food sector in a way that allows people to have confidence that their food supply is safe."

According to court documents, state investigators examined the southern Minnesota farm for the first time on May 26, after receiving information about the apparent source of the outbreak from the Minnesota Health Department.

On that day, the state said it found the same rare E. coli strain on the farm as had been found in the victims. Also on May 26, court documents say investigators noted a host of food production concerns on the farm.

Among the problems -- unsanitary conditions, mainly caused by manure contamination which could be a source of harmful bacteria. Investigators called the milking location "filthy."

Those findings led to the second search on June 16. During that search, investigators took photos and collected more samples. They also confiscated computer hard drives containing Hartmann's financial and production records.

State agriculture investigators say they believe those records will prove that Hartmann is both producing and selling food in violation of state food safety laws. Among other things, the state alleges Hartmann lacks the necessary licenses or permits he needs for processing and manufacturing the food products found on the farm.

And it says conditions on the farm are unsanitary for making food products. The products include milk, cheese, yogurt, ice cream and meat.

The court documents also shed light on the level of tension present between the two sides. During the May 26 search, state investigators say Michael Hartman refused to cooperate with them.

The investigators wanted to get manure samples from milk cows grazing in a pasture. A problem arose when the investigators realized there was also a bull in the pasture. Hartmann refused to remove the bull, and apparently the state workers felt it was unsafe to go into the pasture with the bull present.

Hartmann also refused a second request that day, to herd the cows to a safe place for the investigators to work.

The state says the investigation found several potential sources of contamination. According to court documents, many surfaces in the milking parlor were visibly covered with manure. The state also found rodent droppings in the creamery attic and in a washroom.

The state says there were chickens housed in the milking parlor, contributing to the sanitation problem.

Michael Hartmann and other family members have refused to comment on the case since the state launched its investigation.

Through representatives though, the Hartmanns have said the state has failed to prove its contentions, and that they do not believe their farm is the source of the E. coli outbreak.