State ratchets up pressure on raw milk seller

Milk raid
An unidentified Minnesota Department of Agriculture official loads a vehicle with raw milk products from the Hartman farm in this still from a video posted to YouTube. The milk products were being delivered to a home in Minnetonka when they were intercepted.

Investigators with the state Department of Agriculture are trying to determine if the operators of a southern Minnesota dairy farm at the center of a raw milk controversy are guilty of felony criminal offenses.

The state has made repeated efforts to stop Michael and Roger Hartmann from selling unpasteurized milk in the Twin Cities and other locations, but the brothers have continued to deliver their products.

On Tuesday, state agriculture officials confiscated about 400 gallons of milk that Roger Hartman delivered to a house in Minnetonka, where customers were waiting to pick up their orders, according to search warrant documents.

The department has not filed any charges, but the documents suggest the farmers are selling milk that will make people sick.

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State agriculture department officials towed the truck to a state building.

In a video posted on YouTube, Hartmann customers surround the state inspectors, saying things like 'what a waste' and 'this is so wrong'. They demand answers.

"How is the milk adulterated?" asked one supporter. "What's wrong with that milk, sir?"

The inspector replied that he is not allowed to respond.

According to the search warrant, state officials received an anonymous tip last month providing the drop site's address.

The document said agriculture department officials knew the home had served as a raw milk drop site in the past.

Department officials declined to comment on the Minnetonka milk seizure or confirm that it took place.

For his part, Michael Hartmann said it is his constitutional right to sell dairy products and that the public supports that right.

"There was 30 to 40 of our consumers up there, protesting," Hartmann said. "They didn't have a warrant at all; they just stopped us. And they had no right to do that. And it's just totally violating all the rules of law."

In the search warrant document, state officials say they requested a warrant after observing Roger Hartmann unloading the milk. The warrant was delivered electronically and by phone to several locations, including the Minnetonka address.

Agriculture department officials say they presumed the Minnetonka milk was adulterated because it came from a place described as having insanitary conditions: the Hartmann farm near Gibbon, Minn.

In a court hearing last summer state inspectors said the problems included rodent droppings and possible manure contamination in the milking facilities.

The farm was inspected last spring after state investigators linked eight E. Coli sicknesses to Hartmann. It was re-inspected in October after the state linked seven more cases of food borne illness to Hartmann milk, this time campylobacter and cryptosporidium.

In the search warrant documents, state officials say they have reason to believe Michael Hartmann and his brother Roger are selling "an adulterated substance with the intent to cause death, bodily harm or illness... in light of their awareness of the many individuals struck by serious life-threatening illnesses after consuming unpasteurized milk produced under insanitary conditions."

Michael Hartmann insists his products have not sickened anyone.

State officials say anyone selling adulterated food could face felony charges, punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a $20,000 fine. They declined to say whether they intend to file criminal charges.

Food safety attorney Bill Marler, who has represented many victims off food poisoning, said criminal charges should be one option considered in the Hartmann case.

"The fact that he's continuing to sell his product against Minnesota law and with an embargo in place and that he's sickened people certainly seems like a reasonable approach to bring sanctions against him in some form or another," Marler said.

The state placed an embargo on Hartmann food products after linking them to the E. coli outbreak. Hartmann contends the embargo only applies to the food products state officials found on the farm when they inspected the place in May and June.

State agriculture officials say the embargo applies to food products produced since then. The two sides argued that issue in district court last summer, but so far the judge in the case has not issued a ruling.

Meanwhile the state has not said yet if tests prove that the milk seized in Minnetonka is unpasteurized.