A state judge on Wednesday rejected a Gibbon, Minn., dairy farmer's denial of responsibility for an outbreak of illness linked to raw milk that he produced and sold.
District Judge Rex Stacey, in a ruling based on 10 days of testimony by public health scientists and others, declared that dairy products from Michael Hartmann's farm "were produced, prepared, packed and held in insanitary conditions."
He ordered the state Agriculture Department to destroy milk, cheese and other products seized in May.
Hartmann had argued that products seized by the state should be returned so his family could use them. The judge rejected that argument, saying Hartmann's "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."
Stacey ruled that state officials "properly determined that the Hartmann farm and product was the source of illnesses" that initially struck eight people last spring. The state "has proven that the goods are adulterated and misbranded," the judge ruled.
The judge said the state Health Department's epidemiological work was "accurate and reliable" and that Hartmann offered no evidence of "any other possible source of the infection." The judge also said Agriculture Department inspectors offered credible evidence of unsanitary conditions, including dead animals, rodent droppings and rusty, corroded and unclean equipment.
Agriculture Department spokesman Michael Schommer said officials are pleased with the ruling, but would say little about what will happen next with the farmer, who has continued to sell raw milk in defiance of a state order.
"It is part of the ongoing regulatory action," he said. "We will be moving ahead with the regulatory process."
Raw milk is not pasteurized to kill pathogens. Some natural foods advocates contend that unpasteurized milk products are beneficial -- a belief that public health authorities reject as dangerous.
In October, state epidemiologists linked seven more people's illnesses to Hartmann's dairy products. Unlike the earlier illnesses --from a potentially deadly form of E. coli -- the new cases were caused by the bacteria Campylobacter and the parasite Cryptosporidium parvum. No one was hospitalized in the latest outbreak.
Attorney Zenas Baer, who represented Hartmann, said his client was disappointed by the ruling.
He said the litigation over the Hartmann dairy is far from over. Hartmann's challenge to the enforcement case will go before an administrative law judge. The farmer also has a separate constitutional challenge pending in district court.
"Under the Minnesota Constitution a farmer is constitutionally privileged to sell and peddle the products from the farm," Baer said. "And the milk and cheese and other food products that Hartmann sells, he contends and the consumers contend, are products of the farm for which no license or permission is required from the state of Minnesota."
David Shaffer • 612-673-7090