Google the terms “Hartmann Farm, Gibbon, MN” and you’ll get a good five pages of lawyer and media sites writing that three of four people have become ill from E.coli 0157:H7 in raw milk sold by the dairy. Nearly all the articles are based on an announcement by the Minnesota Department of Health that the illnesses have been “traced to raw milk” from Hartmann Farm, citing as evidence not only that they drank raw milk, but have the same genetic versions of the E.coli 0157:H7.

The lawyers are re-purposing the announcement because they are elbowing each other to be first in line when the families of those who became ill possibly select a product liability lawyer to seek damages. The media are pouncing on the announcement as evidence that the public health community is correct that raw milk is inherently unsafe.

No one seems to have asked the dairy owner his version of what happened. I spoke with the owner, Michael Hartmann, earlier today, and he tells a somewhat different tale. He says he’s been making raw milk available for the last ten years, and has never had a hint of illness. (He pasteurizes his dairy’s skim milk.) He contests the publicized version of events on two counts:

1. The public health authorities apparently haven’t found the E.coli in his dairy’s milk or anywhere else that directly connects the dairy. As a result, his dairy was raided yesterday by sheriffs deputies followed by two Minnesota Department of Agriculture agents and two Department of Health investigators. They came with a search warrant, and spent six-and-a-half hours searching his dairy and taking manure samples from his forty Dutch Belted cows, along with pigs and sheep. Clearly, the authorities were on the prowl for evidence of E.coli 0157:H7, to make a connection with the E.coli found in individuals who became ill–a connection they apparently haven’t yet definitely made.

2. He says he’s heard from the parents of two children who became ill–including one who has hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS)–and both told him that it was only the adults who drank raw milk, that the children hadn’t been drinking it, and thus, as far as the parents were concerned, the children hadn’t gotten sick from the milk.

This is definitely a story in progress. While it doesn’t seem accurate to conclude the illnesses have been “traced to” the Minnesota dairy, it certainly seems possible that will be where the trail ends. If authorities find the same version of E.coli they’ve found in the patients, that’s very conclusive. And to explain the fact that the children haven’t consumed the milk, E.coli 0157:H7 can be transmitted among family members.

Interestingly, the Minnesota Department of Health uses its announcement to cite various statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control about illnesses and outbreaks from raw milk (including the “two deaths” we know were really from “bathtub” queso fresca cheese), but it seems somehow to have overlooked one relevant fact, which is noted by the Minneapolis StarTribune article: If it turns out the Minnesota dairy was the source of the problematic E.coli, this would be the first raw milk outbreak in Minnesota in at least 15 years. Wonder how the public health people could have missed that.

Cows at Milky Way Farm in South Carolina, target of an FDA warning letter on raw milk.Another raw dairy in the news is Milky Way Farm in South Carolina. It was reported to have received a warning letter from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration last month claiming the dairy was “causing to be delivered, selling, or otherwise distributing raw milk, in final package form for human consumption, in interstate commerce.”

As evidence, the FDA said it had determined from the dairy’s web site that it sells raw milk to a co-op in Augusta, GA. And as usual, the news stories on the warning letter provided no comment from the dairy.

I spoke with L.D. Peeler, the dairy’s owner, and he says any co-ops mentioned on his site aren’t his, but rather, “Just groups of families that cooperate so they wouldn’t have to spend money on gas” to pick up their milk. “I do not go out of state with my milk.”

Peeler says he engaged a lawyer, who answered the FDA warning letter, to explain the correct situation, and he hasn’t heard back yet from the FDA.

Peeler does acknowledge dropping milk off to several hundred buyers who cross into South Carolina from North Carolina and Georgia, where raw milk is illegal. He says the FDA letter seems to be suggesting he ensure he sells only to South Carolina residents. “I can’t determine where they’re from and I’m not going to.”

I asked Peeler why he thought the FDA was coming after him, and not after the consumers who were crossing the state borders to pick up milk from his dairy. “They’d need a lot more than the 1,200 troops they’ve sent to the Mexican border to try to stop the raw milk,” he says. 

Bingo, Mr. Peeler. If the FDA was serious about enforcing the law, it would go after every individual who carries raw milk across state lines, rather than try to use a farmer as the equivalent of a police agent. These people are violating the law, aren’t they? But the FDA knows that if it tried to enforce the law, it would have an insurrection on its hands. What a cowardly pathetic bunch that would pick on owners of small farms struggling to earn a living and use them to enforce laws it is afraid to enforce.

A Milky Way Farm customer wrote on the Raw Dairy listserve: “They’re trying to take away my milk…” Yes, they are. That’s exactly what they’re trying to do. ?If you live in the North Carolina or Georgia areas of Milky Way Farm, send the FDA a message and support L.D. Peeler by crossing over to South Carolina and buying all the raw milk you can carry back.