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Judge rules farmer's raw milk products caused E. coli outbreak

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Unpasteurized dairy products
Unpasteurized dairy products from the Hartmann farm are under embargo by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.
Courtesy Minnesota Department of Agriculture

The southern Minnesota dairy farmer linked to more than a dozen food-borne-illnesses was handed a major setback today in state court. A judge ruled that embargoed food items on the Michael Hartmann farm must be destroyed.

Hartmann sells unpasteurized milk, cheese, yogurt and other products produced on his farm near Gibbon, grossing about a quarter of a million dollars a year. He has battled the state for years over what he can and can't sell, but last spring the fight reached a new level.

That's when the state said Hartmann dairy products sickened 8 people with E. Coli O157:H7, a potentially deadly illness. Hartmann fired back, saying the state's allegations were false, because they had not actually found the bacteria in any of his products.

But the state maintained they had proof, because they found the same rare strain of E. coli in both the victims and on the Hartmann farm, mainly in cow manure samples. State officials said the strain had never been found in Minnesota before the outbreak.

In his ruling today, Judge Rex Stacey said the state's facts were credible, and that he had "no doubt" the Hartmann products caused the E. Coli illnesses. After that outbreak last spring the state embargoed all food on the Hartmann farm, but Hartmann challenged that in court.

The agriculture department told the Judge state law gives them the authority to embargo any food produced in unsanitary conditions. They said the Hartmann farm was unsanitary, pointing out they found manure contamination near the milk tanks, chickens in the dairy barn,dead animals in and near the barn, and deposits of mouse droppings.

The state agriculture department's Michael Schommer said the judge agreed with the state's position and ordered the embargoed food destroyed.

"Obviously we're pleased with the judge's ruling," Schommer said. "The court ruled clearly in support of the evidence and arguments provided by our department and the health department that the product was adulterated and we were justified in taking the actions that we proposed."

Judge Stacey said the state can go on the Hartmann farm to destroy the food, but Schommer said it's not clear yet if that's what will happen. He said the state is willing to work with Hartmann to satisfy the judge's order.

Hartmann attorney Zenas Baer said Hartmann will cooperate with the court order. He said the judge's ruling leaves some constitutional issues unresolved.

"The right of Mike Hartmann to sell and peddle the products of his farm," Baer said. "And the flip side, [the] right of a consumer to buy that product."

The order delivered a stinging rebuke of Hartmann and his arguments.

It said Michael Hartmann presented little credible evidence to contradict the state's case.

The order points out the Hartmanns' want to keep the dairy products for personal use. But the order said it had to be destroyed to protect the public against the possibility it would be sold. He said "a claim that a family of four will personally consume 900 packages, forty-odd tubs and boxes of cheese, and 76 cases of butter is not credible."

It said the embargoed meat came from a processor that was recently closed due to gross insanitary conditions.

The agriculture department's Schommer said farmers in the state have the right to sell raw milk to customers who come to their farm. Exactly what Hartmann is allowed to do with food he produces remains unclear. It's not spelled out in the judge's order, but his attorney says he believes Hartmann can still sell at the farm.

But Hartmann may be facing further legal troubles.

After the E. coli outbreak last spring, the state said Hartmann raw milk was also responsible for a second round of illnesses during the summer. Those illnesses were caused by campylobacter and cryptosporidium. Earlier this month, the state seized Hartmann milk from a delivery truck in a Twin Cities suburb. The search warrant documents said selling adulterated food with the intent to cause illness is a felony.