A state court has ruled that raw milk from the Hartmann Dairy Farm was responsible for an outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 in Minnesota last spring that sickened at least eight people, including a 2-year-old child.
In a ruling issued Dec. 20, Sibley County Judge Rex D. Stacey said Minnesota public health officials were justified in seizing the farm’s raw milk products. The court said the products must be destroyed and ordered owner Michael Hartmann to pay the disposal costs.
Legal experts see the 23-page decision as a thorough rebuke of the manner in which the Hartmann Dairy Farm was operated. It also refuted, point-by-point, arguments put forth on behalf of the farm, which the court found untenable and unsupported.
The milk sold by the farm was “produce, prepared, packed and held in insanitary conditions,” the court determined.
The action is the latest in a long-running battle between brothers Michael and Roger Hartmann and Minnesota public health and agriculture regulators, who had linked the Hartmann farm in Gibbon to a cluster of people infected with E. coli.
State officials impounded its products and told the Hartmanns to stop selling unpasteurized milk until they corrected sanitary problems at their dairy, but Michael Hartmann has continued to sell milk in defiance of the order. He has contended his milk did not cause anyone to become sick.
Judge Stacey disagreed, saying that evidence presented during 10 days of testimony showed all eight people were infected by the same, rare strain of toxin-producing E. coli and that many more had likely been rendered ill by Hartmann milk. Four of the eight the confirmed cases required hospitalization and the two-year-old sickened in the outbreak developed hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), a potentially lethal condition that can lead to kidney failure.
In his ruling, the judge noted that some E. coli O157:H7 is typically present in the guts and manure of cows on about 30-40 percent of dairy farms, but only in about 4 percent of animals tested at any given time.
He said it was therefore significant that the Minnesota Department of Health found E. coli O157:H7 in 28 of 80 animal and environmental samples from the Hartmann farm. Twenty-six of those E. coli isolates matched the unique strain of E. coli that made the eight people sick.
In May and June, after Minnesota health investigators had identified the Hartmann dairy as the likely source of the E. coli outbreak, inspectors from the state agriculture department found numerous sanitation problems at the farm, including “the extreme buildup of manure on virtually every surface in the dairy barn,” according to evidence presented to the court.
They said they found the milk house ceiling to be water damaged and crumbling, thick layers of cobwebs and dust, dead flies and live flies in abundance, dead animals, rodent droppings, chickens in the milking parlor, rusty and corroded equipment, and milking equipment stored in a sink. They said there was buildup inside and out of the milking equipment, pipeline system, receiving jar, bulk tank and cleaning sinks. The Hartmanns have been operating without a Grade A dairy license, which was revoked by the state in 2001.
The court also found that the Hartmanns were selling uninspected meat. Michael Hartmann had testified that the embargoed meat was custom-processed from by a firm that the judge noted was recently closed “due to gross insanitary conditions including repeated fecal contamination of carcasses.”
Minnesota law permits the sale of unpasteurized milk, but it must be sold on the farm where it is produced. The Hartmanns testified that they deliver the majority of their dairy products to customers at various drop-off locations around Minnesota and that only a small amount of product is purchased by customers at their farm.
Although the Hartmanns had told the court they wanted to keep the embargoed dairy products for “personal use,” the court 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.”