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Melinda Olson has given her 12-year-old son raw milk for years. When he walked away virtually unscathed from a serious bike accident last year, she credited his healthy diet of raw milk dairy products.
Matthew Caldwell fed his 2-year-old son, Owen, raw milk in the spring of 2010. The boy was hospitalized for 13 days, victim of an E. coli 0157:H7 outbreak traced to raw milk producer Mike Hartmann.
The two parents' stories are bookends to a debate that is on high boil in Minnesota. One farmer accused of breaking state law barring the off-farm sale of raw milk, Alvin Schlangen, is slated for trial in July. Hartmann was hit with the same criminal milk charge last month, and also faces a civil suit from Caldwell.
Raw milk isn't pasteurized -- heat-treated to kill pathogens. Advocates see it as integral to a superior diet, and decry what they see as heavy-handed attempts to limit its free flow and punish suppliers. "This is about the freedom to choose the foods we want for our families," said Olson of Richfield.
But restrictions on raw milk are based on longstanding beliefs among public health authorities that non-pasteurized dairy products pose a special risk. This year alone, there have been five outbreaks of raw-milk related diseases spanning eight states.
The debate surfaced in Minnesota two years ago when eight people got E. coli 0157:H7, a bug that causes fever, vomiting, diarrhea -- often bloody -- and other nastiness. At its worst, it can lead to kidney failure and death.
After state health and farm inspectors linked the bug to Hartmann, the Minnesota Agriculture Department ordered him to stop peddling unpasteurized milk and cheese, as well as uninspected meat. He didn't, the Agriculture Department says, so Hartmann was charged in Sibley County with eight misdemeanors and one gross misdemeanor for selling improperly labeled frozen food.
Hartmann's wife, Diane, and brother Roger were hit with the same charges, all of which involve fines and potential jail time. None of the Hartmanns could be reached for comment.
Schlangen, a Stearns County farmer, has been charged with four misdemeanors in Hennepin County, including sale of unpasteurized milk. An egg farmer, Schlangen operates a 130-member private buying club, delivering raw milk produced by Amish farmers to consumers in the Twin Cities.
But state law only allows for "occasional" sales of raw milk products at the farm where they're produced.
Schlangen called the law "absurd," since it implies the same batch of raw milk is safe at the farm, but not if sold in the Twin Cities. He said he didn't break the law, either. "The charges are based on commerce and there's no commerce here. It's a completely different food system than what we are accustomed to."
Hartmann's raw milk has been distributed through several "drop sites" in the Twin Cities, usually the homes of raw milk consumers, including Melinda Olson.
Last month, the Agriculture Department sent out a "notice of warning" to Olson and 10 other Twin Cities residents found to be serving as Hartmann drop sites in 2010.
But Olson said she's not distributing raw milk. "They are not my customers," she said of those who picked up Hartmann's wares at her home.
With the flurry of warning letters and charges, Minnesota stands out nationally, said Pete Kennedy, head of the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund, legal adviser to raw milk causes. "It's the most oppressive state in terms of freedom of food choice."
The state Agriculture Department says it's just doing its job. "We don't write the laws, we enforce the laws as written," said Mike Schommer, a department spokesman.
Raw milk partisans say the beverage simply tastes better, and it comes from an agriculture ecosystem they value: small, local farms populated with grass-fed cows.
Raw dairy goods are healthier and more nutritious, too, they claim, boosting immunity, building bones. Olson said that when her son got hit by a car on his bike, the bike was totaled, but he suffered only bruises. His raw milk intake, she said, "made him strong."
A recent study by the Centers for Disease Control, echoing the public health consensus, says credible scientific evidence for such health claims is lacking. That study also noted that illnesses associated with raw milk tend to make people sicker than those linked to pasteurized dairy products.
The incidence of illness linked to any milk products is quite low, said Fred Pritzker, a Minneapolis attorney who has represented about 20 victims of raw milk-related food poisoning. But if disease strikes with raw milk, he likened the experience to driving without a seat belt. "When you get hit, you're really going to get hurt."
With E. coli 0157:H7, the biggest hit usually comes from hemolytic uremic syndrome, which can cause kidney failure. That's what Matthew Caldwell's son Owen contracted, according to a suit filed last summer on the child's behalf.
Before the 2-year-old was hospitalized, he experienced bloody diarrhea at the rate of 20 times in 24 hours, court records say. After blood transfusions and kidney dialysis, he recovered. Caldwell is seeking payment from Hartmann for more than $50,000 in medical costs.
Hennepin County District Judge Susan Burke has ruled that Hartmann was negligent, but she also accepted his argument that Owen Caldwell's parents potentially bore some responsibility because they should have known of raw milk's risks.
The Caldwells' attorney rejected Hartmann's assertion, and noted the "irony" of the farmer's new tack -- "after spending much time championing the benefits of raw milk and its safety." A jury likely will decide the proportion of fault between Hartmann and the Caldwells.
Matthew Caldwell, who has moved from Minneapolis to Boise, Idaho, couldn't be reached for comment.
Seattle food safety attorney Bill Marler, who has sued several raw milk providers, said that when illness strikes consumers' attitude about risk often changes. "The people who get sick or whose children get sick have a much different perspective. They feel guilty."
But Olson, who's aware of the Caldwell case, said she simply doesn't associate raw milk with extra risk.
"Everything has an inherent risk. Peanut butter has killed people, does it mean I'm never going to buy peanut butter? No," she said, referring to a 2008 salmonella outbreak. "There wouldn't be anything left to eat if we let fear dictate our choices."
Mike Hughlett • 612-673-7003