Repeated sanitation violations at a south-central Minnesota slaughterhouse have led the state to pursue criminal charges against its owners and to ban them from operating a meat-processing business.

State inspections of Lafayette City Meats found, among other things, fecal contamination of a cooler full of beef and hog carcasses, and beef quarters that had to be destroyed because they were covered with "a dark residue, blood and hair," state documents say.

Owners Richard and Karen Hoffman were each charged in February in Nicollet County with 12 misdemeanor offenses, primarily relating to poor sanitation at Lafayette City Meats in Lafayette. Each pleaded guilty last month to one count of failing to provide a suitable water supply, plumbing system or sewage disposal system at their place of business.

The Minnesota Department of Agriculture has moved to revoke Lafayette City Meats' license, and a state administrative law judge concurred with that decision in June. The Hoffmans have until Friday to appeal the revocation. They couldn't be reached for comment.

But as part of their guilty pleas, both agreed to surrender their meat-processing licenses and to not operate or be involved in the operation of a meat-processing business as an owner or manager. They were also each fined $200 and agreed to unsupervised probation of 12 months.

Lafayette City Meats, whose clients included a Gibbon farmer in the middle of a recent debate over raw milk, was one of about 250 "custom" slaughterhouses in Minnesota.

Meat from the animals they slaughter can be consumed only by the owner of the animal; it can't be sold. For instance, a dairy farmer with a cow that's no longer producing milk adequately might bring the animal to a custom slaughterhouse and pay to have it killed and processed for personal use.

Slaughterhouses that sell meat for public consumption must have a federal or state inspector on the premises when operating. Custom slaughterhouses don't have to, but they are inspected two to four times a year, said Mike Schommer, a spokesman for the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.

Revocations of custom slaughter licenses are rare. There's only been one such case in the past six years in Minnesota, and the owners of that slaughterhouse came into compliance just before a final revocation, Schommer said. Criminal charges for slaughterhouse sanitation violations are even rarer.

The state inspected Lafayette City Meats 15 times between Jan. 19, 2007, and Sept. 3, 2009, and found more than 40 violations, many of which were repeated. Repeat violations included fecal contamination of carcasses, rodent infestation and buildup of product and fat residue on floors, walls and equipment, state records say.

In addition, Lafayette City Meats processed dead cattle, according to a voluntary statement given to the Agriculture Department by Alan Schauer, who worked at Lafayette for five years, slaughtering and butchering animals. Federal regulations prohibit processing of cattle that died in any way other than slaughter.

Schauer also said he bought a .357-gauge rifle to do a more humane job of putting animals down at Lafayette. Prior to that, he said, he had been supplied with a .22-gauge rifle, which was often inadequate to kill an animal with a single shot, state records say.

In a January 2009 inspection at Lafayette, state regulators also found more than 600 pounds of beef and pork that were inadequately labeled. Meat processed by a custom slaughterhouse is supposed to be labeled "Not for Sale." The meat in question was labeled "Mike Hartmann," the name of the organic farmer at the center of a controversy over raw milk.

The Minnesota Department of Health traced a May outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 that sickened eight people to raw milk produced by Hartmann. The state limits sales of raw milk because it hasn't been pasteurized to kill harmful bacteria.

In addition to selling dairy products, Hartmann has raised cows and hogs on his farm and used Lafayette City Meats as a processor, according to court records.

Since Lafayette was a custom slaughterhouse -- and therefore did not have a full-time inspector on the premises -- Hartmann was charged in 2002 in McLeod County for selling uninspected meat. The case went all the way to the Minnesota Supreme Court, which in 2005 affirmed that custom-processed meat cannot lawfully be sold.

Richard and Karen Hoffman were each charged with two counts of being involved in the sale or intended sale of custom-slaughtered meat.

Star Tribune staff writer Jane Friedmann contributed to this report.

Mike Hughlett • 612-673-7003