GAYLORD - Spectators packed a Sibley County District courtroom Friday where a jury trial was set for rural Gibbon farmer Michael O. Hartmann.
The 59-year-old farmer is facing criminal charges linked to an earlier Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA) investigation of sales of raw milk, other unpasteurized dairy products plus un-inspected meat alleged to have sickened more than a dozen people.
Investigators said Hartmann sold raw milk and other products contaminated with E. coli and other pathogens, causing a state embargo on his farm in 2010.
A nine-count criminal complaint filed April 5, 2012, alleges that Hartmann has continued to sell unpasteurized milk and other products despite an embargo and other actions.
Hartmann's wife Diane, his brother Roger, and alleged business associate Linda Schultz were also charged.
Diane Hartmann was scheduled to appear first at the Friday hearing but did not show up for court. Instead, a woman who only identified herself as an "accommodating party" spoke briefly.
The judge said he would not provide the woman with any documents unless she identified herself.
"No charging instrument is produced, therefore my business is concluded and I will leave," the woman said.
Perkins issued an arrest and incarceration warrant for Diane Hartmann.
The judge gave a copy of the complaint to Michael Hartmann who read it but did not answer when asked how he would plead.
"As an accommodating party... the matter remains unresolved," Hartmann said.
"It certainly is," Perkins said. "I take that as a not guilty plea."
Hartmann's jury trial was set to begin at 8:30 a.m., Tuesday. Aug. 28 in Sibley County District Court.
Release conditions include attending all future court dates and not marketing or selling food products without proper licenses. Hartmann was advised of his right to have an attorney.
Hartmann said he would not accept the original court documents and that the matter is resolved.
"If you don't show up at trial, you will lose," Perkins said.
The nine-count case dating back to 2010 includes sale of improperly labeled frozen food, unpasteurized milk, adulterated food, adulteration (or misbranding) of food, sale of un-inspected meat, ungraded butter, unpasteurized cheese, sale of food without a license and operation of a dairy plant without a permit.
Maximum penalty for the first gross misdemeanor count is one year in jail and/or a $3,000 fine, and 90 days in jail and/or a $1,000 fine for the other eight misdemeanor counts.
Assistant Sibley County Attorney Don Lannoye and Hartmann, representing himself, would not comment after the hearing.
Hartmann's brother Roger and alleged business associate Linda Schultz were the others charged May 3, 2012. Warrants for Roger Hartmann and Schultz were issued May 9.
According to a statement of probable cause, the MDA began to investigate the Hartmann operation in May 2010 after receiving a report from the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH), which established it was the source of an E. coli 0157:H7 outbreak that required at least eight Minnesotans to get medical treatment.
The statement added that the dairy operation appeared to be engaged in the unlawful production, distribution and and/or sale of un-inspected meat, misbranded products, unpasteurized and/or adulterated milk and milk products including cheese, butter, yogurt and ice cream; processing and/or manufacturing food without required licenses; and food production in unsanitary conditions.
In addition, the four suspects removed products in violation of embargo orders prohibiting the sale or movement of it.
According to the statement, eight alleged victims were confirmed with the same pulsed field gel electrophoresis (PFGE) pattern, six of whom reported consuming products. Two were confirmed as having been in contact with, or presumed to have been in contact with, cases that consumed Hartmann products and became ill.
On May 26, 2010, MDA inspectors at the Hartmann food operation saw about 46 tubs and 900 individual packages of cheese in final package form for retail sale, all without mandatory labeling information including identity of manufacturer or producer and ingredient lists, according to the statement.
About 100 cases of bottled milk were labeled "real" milk and 20 cases of bottled milk labeled "skim." Several samples drawn from bottled milk tested positive for not being pasteurized or pasteurized correctly. Meat presumed held for sale had no inspection stamp, as required by law, according to the statement.
Other samples showed toxins that are illness-causing E. coli strains that made at least eight people ill enough to seek medical treatment including a two-year-old who suffered permanent kidney damage from the E. coli infection, before the product was condemned and destroyed in early 2011, according to the statement.
On Oct. 20, 2010, the MDH attributed a second food borne illness (Campylobacter jejuni) outbreak to Hartmann foods. Three cases reported consuming Hartmann's raw milk products, according to the statement.
The MDH reported four people in two households that consumed Hartmann raw milk products and reported Cryptosporidium parvum that matched environmental samples taken from the Hartmann farm on May 26, 2010, according to the statement.
The Hartmanns' Grade A permit was revoked in 2001, due to gross unsanitary conditions they refused to remedy. Many of the same unsanitary conditions were documented by the MDA in 2010, according to the statement.
The MDA added that many unlawful sales made by the Hartmann business are facilitated via internet and electronic mail, at least in part by email to firstname.lastname@example.org, according to the statement.
A computer hard drive search at the Hartmann premises showed eight drop site coordinators and drop sites used a food/sale distribution points plus coordination between the Hartmanns and site coordinators including compensation by reduced product prices, according to the statement.
Recent information established Linda Schultz now accepts all Hartmann product orders as drop site coordinator and that they continue to operate against MDA orders and at serious risk to public health, according to the statement.
Fritz Busch can be e-mailed at email@example.com.