Look closely. The image (right, click to enlarge) identifies a strain of  E. coli found in a recent cluster of illnesses that state officials say is linked to raw milk from a farm in south central Minnesota. In down-to-earth terms, it could be likened to a bar code–a bar code for a microbe. In scientific terms, the image shows what are called “bacterial isolates” from samples taken from the Hartmann dairy farm and from people who became ill from bacterium with the same DNA fingerprint. The likely suspect, according to state Health and Agriculture departments, is raw milk or raw milk products purchased at the farm. Raw milk is milk that has not been pasteurized to kill potentially harmful or deadly pathogens such as E. coli and Salmonella. As part of the state’s investigation into this recent cluster of  E. coli cases,  each bacterial isolate was DNA fingerprinted by a technique called pulsed-field gel electrophoresis, or PFGE. Scientific jargon aside, state officials say the image provides additional evidence that “clearly indicates” that the Hartmann farm was the source of the strain of E. coli O157:H7 that made at least four people ill. The state is still investigating a fifth case in which the person came down with the same E. coli strain but did not consume any raw milk or raw milk dairy products from the farm. “We do not know the exposure, but there are some possible connections to the Hartmann farm that we are still investigating,” said Health Department spokesman Doug Schultz in an email to Food Safety News. One of the five cases was a toddler who had been hospitalized with deadly complications of E. coli. The toddler was released from the hospital on June 2. In a June 10 email to Food Safety News, Schultz said the department may have more information to release today (June 11) about its investigation of additional reports of illness in several people who consumed raw milk products from the Hartmann dairy. State officials say that the fact that multiple patients were infected with this new strain of E.coli, which had never been seen in the state before, in such a tight time frame indicates that there was a common source for the illnesses. “In other words, the patients must have acquired their infection from the same source,” says a recently released fact sheet from the state’s Health and Agriculture departments. According to the fact sheet, the ill people came from communities across the state and the same strain of E. coli O157:H7 found in the ill people was also found in several animals and from several samples taken at various locations on the farm. Not surprisingly, the owners of  the Hartmann dairy farm take issue with the state’s association of the farm with the recent cluster of E. coli cases. “Not a single test of raw milk was found to contain any strain of E. coli,” said a June 7 statement released on behalf of Michael Hartmann. Also, according to the same statement: “No claim is made that any sample from a dairy cow or the dairy barn contained any E. coli.” Hartmann also bristled at what he described as the state’s “serious regulatory and potentially criminal action in a grossly negligent manner with total disregard for the defamatory content of their media campaign.” Earlier this month, the state placed an embargo on dairy and meat products from the farm. But despite that embargo, consumers may still go to the farm and buy raw milk. raw-milk-minnesota.jpgUnder state law, people are allowed to buy raw milk if they go to the farm that produces it. The fact sheet from the Health and Agriculture departments says that even though the E. coli strain in this cluster of illnesses was not found in samples of products from the farm, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t in the product, or products, that got the people sick. In many cases, says the fact sheet, only particular batches of product may have been contaminated. And because in many cases, perishable products have already been consumed, they aren’t available for testing. The fact sheet also points out that the outbreak strain of E. coli O157:H7 was found in the manure of some individual calves, sheep, and cattle pens. “Of note,” says the fact sheet, “the calves were likely drinking the same milk as that consumed by” the people who came down with E. coli. State officials say that standard public health practice doesn’t require finding the illness strain of a pathogen in either environmental or product samples in order to determine the source of an outbreak before the state steps in to prevent further illnesses. Although state officials point to pathogens in raw milk that can cause serious illness, or even death, they also point to a state law that protects the rights of consumers to buy raw milk at the farm that produced it. “Like Mr. Hartmann, we wholeheartedly endorse the value of consumer choice,” says the fact sheet from the Health and Agriculture departments. Even so, the fact sheet warns that drinking raw milk can come with the risk of coming down with E. col O157:H7. “We nonetheless support the rights of consumers who wish to assume that risk–IF they do so knowingly,” says the fact sheet. Also according to the fact sheet: “When raw milk is distributed beyond the premises of the farm where it was produced, you drastically increase the likelihood that consumers will purchase the product without knowing that they are in fact getting raw milk–or what the risks might be. That’s why current law forbids the distribution of raw milk beyond the location where it was produced.” In an earlier interview with Food Safety News, Agriculture Department spokesman Michael Schommer said that raw milk is being transported to drop-off locations in various parts of the state even though it’s against the law. As for the likelihood that consumers who come to a farm to get raw milk are more informed about raw milk than those who get it at drop-off point or other locations, state law does not require the farms to inform consumers about the possible dangers associated with raw milk. In fact, consumers are required to bring their own containers to the farm when they come to get their milk. Central Minnesota farmer Rich Radtke, co-owner of Prairie’s Edge Farms, which produces raw goat milk, as well as products such as Highlander beef, pastured poultry, and holiday turkeys, said he wouldn’t be adverse to using labels to inform consumers about raw milk–as long as the information is base d on science. But he also pointed out that because raw milk producers aren’t allowed to bottle their milk, labeling isn’t really an option. He also agrees with state law that it’s better to go to a farm to get raw milk than to pick it up at a drop-off location. “If you can get it from the source, it’s fresher and you can see the farm and get to know the producer,” he said. He also pointed out that there’s more potential for contamination when milk is taken to a drop-off location. He cited proper refrigeration as one of his concerns. And while Radtke said he would like state law allow retail sales of raw milk, he also said he would hate to see raw milk “go corporate.” Pointing to major outbreaks of foodborne illnesses associated with products such as peanut butter, peppers, hamburger, and spinach, he said that in the case of  corporate agriculture, “by the time a recall is called, the products have already crossed the nation.” Under federal law, raw milk is not allowed to be sold across state lines. Like other raw milk advocates in his state, Radtke believes that the state’s reluctance to legalize retail sales of raw milk is based on opposition from large dairy organizations. “It’s a money thing, not a health issue,” he said. When looking at a 1949 Minnesota state law that allows people to buy raw milk at a farm and at the changes that have occurred in the E. coli organism since then, Health Department spokesman Schultz said that E. coli O157:H7 was first isolated/identified in 1982. “Prior to that time the organism was not likely found in the raw milk that some farm families drank,” Schultz said. Referring to illness-producing pathogens such as E. coli, Campylobacter, Salmonella, and Listeria, all of which can be found in raw milk, Schultz said that these organisms originate in cow manure. “Regardless of hygeine, it is nearly impossible to prevent some contamination of milk during milking,” he said. “That is why pasteurization is still important for public health.” For information about raw milk, go to “Real Raw Milk Facts.”