As Minnesota state officials continue their investigation of a cluster of 4 E. coli O157:H7 illnesses–three of which have been linked to raw milk from an organic farm near Gibbon, Minn.–the farm’s attorney has released a statement criticizing the state for leaving the farm’s owners in the dark about the investigation.
According to a May 29 statement composed by attorney Zenas Baer Moorhead and Michael Hartmann and his family, the farm had not received any information from any consumer expressing concerns, or allegations of E. coli contamination of any of its food products, until the farm was subjected to a search warrant executed by the Minnesota Departments of Agriculture and Health.
Also, according to the May 29 statement, the search of the farm, also known as M.O.M’s (Minnesota Organic Milk), was carried out with the help of the county sheriff and eight armed deputies.
During the search, department officials seized samples of milk, cleaning water, waste barrel contents, and manure, along with the copies of records of customers, phone numbers, and delivery sites, says the statement.
“When the results are made available, everyone will be better able to understand the identification of any bacteria and its source,” the statement says.
In a press release issued on May 26, the state’s Agriculture and Health departments urged anyone who may have recently purchased milk from the Hartmann Dairy Farm to discard the products.
Department officials said the raw milk may have been labeled organic and that consumers may not have known that the milk was not pasteurized.
Pasteurization heats the milk to a temperature that kills potentially deadly pathogens such as E. coli O157:H7.
Department officials also advised consumers not eat cheese, ice cream, or other dairy products from the farm, which also may have been made from unpasteurized milk.
Minnesota state law allows the “occasional” sale of raw milk as long as the customer comes to the farm to buy it.
On June 1, Health Department spokesman Doug Schultz told Food Safety News that the department has been fielding calls from people who may have become ill from consuming raw milk from the farm.
And last week, Dr. Kirk Smith, supervisor of the state Health Department’s foodborne disease investigations, told newspaper reporters that he’s concerned that the department will hear about more cases because it can take up to 2 weeks for E. coli cases to surface.
According to the department’s May 26 press release, a cluster of four E. coli illnesses all have the same DNA fingerprint, with three of the four cases showing a link to milk from the Hartmann Dairy Farm.
The fourth case is still under investigation.
Three of the four people were hospitalized, and one of the ill people, a toddler, has developed life-threatening complications.
The recently released statement from the Hartmanns and their attorney says that the family is “seriously concerned for the health and welfare of the individuals who became ill.”
But the statement also says that the “family would be surprised to be found the source point for these illnesses and looks forward to the opportunity to review any evidence the state may have.”
The statement also says that the family has only been able to contact two of the individuals who were reportedly diagnosed with E. coli illnesses.
“Of these two, one is not a customer, and the other has denied consumption of raw milk product,” says the statement.
The family is asking that its farm not be pre-judged by the media.
“Please be aware that farm producers, and particularly those who engage in the private sale of raw milk to individuals who make that choice, have been the subject of intense investigations and enforcement actions in a number of states, including Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and New York,” says the statement.
Minnesota attorney Gary Wood told Food Safety News that the state’s Agriculture Department has refused to talk to Michael Hartmann and has referred the family’s attorney to the Attorney General’s office.
Wood also said that the Agriculture Department has refused to disclose what tests they’re conducting and what their testing protocols are.
In addition, Wood said department officials have refused to provide a copy of any affidavit or other information offered in support of the search warrant.
Officials from the state’s Agriculture Department told Food Safety News that the state expects to release information about the test results from samples of the dairy’s milk this week.
When asked if the state believes it has enough evidence to “close the farm down,” which it did last month, Agriculture Department spokesman Michael Schommer told Food Safety News that, “the evidence is very strong.”
But he also said that the case is very complex and involves things “other than simply the sales of raw milk.”
In closing the farm down, the state has placed an embargo on the farm’s products, thus prohibiting any of its meat or milk products from moving off the farm.
The Hartmanns have been advised not to talk with reporters about the case. And because the case is under active investigation, department officials cannot discuss the details of the case–not even how many cows the dairy is milking.
According to a 2005 article about the farm, the farm was producing organic milk, milk products, and meat.
In 2001, the state revoked the farm’s Grade A dairy license.
Dr. Heidi Kassenborg, DVM, director of the state Agriculture Department’s Dairy and Food Inspection Division, told Food Safety News that there were chickens and manure in the milk parlor and other “generally unsanitary conditions.” At the time, she said, Hartmann refused to remove the chickens and clean up the parlor.
But even without a license, the dairy is allowed to sell its milk to customers who come to the farm based on a state law that says farmers don’t need a license to sell their products, as long as nothing has been added to them.
Even so, Agriculture Department spokesman Schommer said that farmers must still meet licensing requirements when it comes to food safety.
But at the same time, the state’s current inspection process does not include inspections of unlicensed dairies such as Hartmanns’ unless a complaint has been filed against it or illnesses have been linked to it, Schommer said.
Raw milk customers must bring their own bottles to the farm, which Kassenborg said means there are no labeling requirements to inform consumers about the potentially harmful health hazards associated with raw milk.
Minnesota law also forbids raw milk to be transported from the farm and dropped off at locations where buyers can pick it up.
Schommer said that the department has seen an increase of raw milk shipments to drop-off locations in recent years.
Even so, the department has had to depend on complaints, human illnesses, or other information to initiate investigations of these shipments.
“In that sense,” Schommer said, “the Minnesota Department of Agriculture has been reactive. Because of the public health issues involved and because i
t is now clear that this is a much more extensive problem, the department will try to shift resources to be more proactive on these cases.”
Kassenborg emphasized that there are no two ways about it when it comes to the potential health dangers associated with raw milk.
“Raw milk is unsafe, particularly in the case of children and the elderly,” she said. “There are no proven benefits from drinking it.”
Raw milk advocates say that raw milk can provide health benefits that range from curing asthma to boosting immune systems.
Between 1973 and 1992, 46 outbreaks associated with raw milk consumption were reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. An additional 45 outbreaks were reported to CDC between 1998 and May 2005 accounting for 1,007 illnesses, 104 hospitalizations, and two deaths.
Anyone who has become ill after consuming dairy products from the Hartmanns’ farm is urged to consult his or her healthcare provider. The Minnesota Department of Health is also asking that they call the agency at 651-201-5414.
For more information about raw milk, get the “Real Raw Milk Facts“.