A Minnesota toddler has been hospitalized with a life-threatening illness and three other people have been sickened by E. coli-tainted raw milk, an outbreak that's likely to sharpen a national debate on the growing popularity of the controversial beverage.
Three of the four E. coli cases are linked to unpasteurized milk produced at the Hartmann Dairy Farm in Gibbon, Minn., which is also known as M.O.M.s, or Minnesota Organic Milk, state health and agricultural department officials said Wednesday. They said consumers should discard any dairy products -- including cheese and ice cream -- made by Hartmann.
Two of the four cases of E. coli 0157:H7 were reported in the metro area, the other two in outstate counties, state officials said. None of the milk involved so far appears to have been sold in stores, said Heidi Kassenborg, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture's director of dairy and food inspection.
Raw milk hasn't been pasteurized -- that is, treated with heat to kill organisms that can make people sick. Interstate sales of raw milk are banned, but more than 20 states allow sales -- usually limited -- of the product.
In Minnesota, raw milk is restricted to "occasional purchases directly at the farm where the milk is produced," Kassenborg said.
Raw milk is roundly condemned by public health authorities because it can carry dangerous bacteria such as E. coli, salmonella and campylobacter. But there's a growing movement of raw milk advocates who believe the drink has health benefits -- and that they should have the right to drink it.
Last week Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle vetoed a bill that would have allowed limited sales of raw milk, irking raw milk supporters but winning praise from food safety advocates.
Each year, several dozen people are usually sickened by raw milk in Minnesota. But this is the first outbreak -- two or more cases that are linked -- in at least 15 years, Health Department officials say.
"The fact is, raw milk is unsafe to drink, and that's unfortunately been evidenced by the outbreak we've seen" in Minnesota, Kassenborg said.
Assistant state epidemiologist Richard Danila said the Health Department found four cases of E. Coli 0157:H7 between May 1 and 21, all of which had the same "DNA fingerprint."
Two of those sickened were school-age children, one was a man who was at least 70 years old and the fourth was a toddler. All four were hospitalized: one overnight, two for four days, and one, the toddler, is still in the hospital after being admitted late last week.
Michael Hartmann, who according to the Health and Agriculture Departments operates the farm, couldn't be reached for comment.
E. coli symptoms usually include stomach cramps and diarrhea, at times bloody. But the toddler has contracted hemolytic uremic syndrome, or HUS, one of the worst outcomes of E. coli poisoning. It can cause kidney failure and death.
A Cold Spring woman, Stephanie Smith, got HUS after eating an E. coli-contaminated hamburger in 2007 and lost the use of her legs, bowel and bladder. She settled a lawsuit this month with the hamburger's maker, Minnetonka-based Cargill Inc., which agreed to pay for her care for life.
Danila said a parent of one sickened child told state investigators that he or she didn't realize the Hartmann milk was raw milk. The parents of the toddler with HUS knew they were buying raw milk, he said, adding that doesn't necessarily mean they understood it was unpasteurized and potentially unhealthy. He characterized the toddler's parents as "distraught."
State officials aren't sure where the Hartmann raw milk was purchased. But some of it may have been purchased at a metro-area "pickup point," Danila said without elaborating.
One Hartmann Dairy customer, south Minneapolis resident Julie Colby, said she picks up raw milk weekly at a neighbor's house through a "milk club." Several families belong, and Colby said she pays Hartmann directly. The arrangement appears to be common.
The Minnesota Agriculture Department is investigating Hartmann Dairy, which Kassenborg said was cited by her department in 2004 for violating the state's raw milk sales law, a misdemeanor offense. She said the state turned the case over to prosecutors in Hennepin County -- where the milk was apparently sold -- but they declined to pursue charges.
The state revoked Hartmann Dairy Farm's license to produce Grade A milk in 2001 for "general unsanitary conditions," Kassenborg said.
Staff writer Kara McGuire contributed to this report.
Mike Hughlett • 612-673-7003