GAYLORD - A 59-year-old rural Gibbon farmer pleaded guilty Monday in Sibley County District court to two counts of an original nine-count criminal complaint filed in April that alleged he continued to sell unpasteurized milk and other dairy and meat products contaminated with E. coli and other pathogens despite an embargo and other state actions.
At the Monday pre-trial settlement hearing, Michael O. Hartmann pleaded guilty to misdemeanor sale of unpasteurized milk on his Sibley County farm in 2010 and misdemeanor sale of food without a license in Sibley County.
He was fined $585, placed on six months Unsupervised probation and ordered to comply with all state licensing and labeling laws within 60 days.
The nine-count case included sale of improperly-labeled frozen food; unpasteurized milk; adulterated food; adulteration (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.
Under the plea agreement, Hartmann, who represented himself in court and continually referred to himself as "an accommodating party to the defendant," waived his rights to a presentence investigation.
Charges and warrants for Hartmann's wife Diane, his brother Roger, and alleged business associate Linda Schultz were dismissed. A jury trial set to begin Tuesday, Nov. 13 in Sibley County District Court was canceled.
Assistant Sibley County Attorney Don Lannoye said his office didn't charge out a felony in the case because he didn't feel Hartmann intentionally harmed anyone.
"What needs to be done is get Mr. Hartmann in compliance with state regulations," Lannoye said. "I will contact the MDA (Minnesota Department of Agriculture) about the case. They will contact me if he violates probation and we'll be back in court."
Hartmann admitted in court that his milk and other food products were sold in the Twin Cities metro area in 2010 without a license.
Lannoye said state officials got search warrants to inspect Hartmann's farm in 2010 after people allegedly got sick after consuming his milk, cheese and ice cream products.
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 uninspected 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 product 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 product 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 Hartmann's 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 that Schultz accepted all Hartmann product orders as a drop site coordinator and that they continued to operate against MDA orders and at serious risk to public health, according to the Statement.
A check with the State of Minnesota Civil, Family and Probate Case Records, showed a product liability civil case involving Michael Hartmann dba Hartmann Dairy vs. Matthew Caldwell, as parent and natural guardian of Owen Caldwell, has been open since Jan. 19, 2011 in Hennepin County District Court.
Former Twin Cities resident Matthew Caldwell, now living in Idaho, alleged his two-year-old son had a potentially fatal kidney illness from E. coli, hemolytic uremic syndrome after consuming raw milk from Hartmann Dairy, according to Minnesota Public Radio.
The suit seeks more than $50,000 including kidney dialysis and unspecified costs to treat the boy's condition.
(Fritz Busch can be e-mailed at email@example.com).