Key Lesson in Judge's Ruling Against Michael Hartmann: Don't Go to Court with a Bunch of Illnesses on Your Watch
Michael Hartmann's legal challenge to Minnesota authorities over confiscation of his dairy farm's products last May was totally rejected by a state judge.
The case was tried over several weeks last August, but the judge only yesterday decided on behalf of the state--that the 120 cases of milk, 900 packages of raw cheddar, and 125 tubs of yogurt, among other items that were confiscated, must be destroyed.
Though Hartmann customers who attended the trial last August felt the judge was engaged and fair-minded, there's not a single encouraging word in the entire 23-page decision for Michael Hartmann or the six consumers who were "intervenors" on his behalf. In fact, adding insult to injury, Hartmann and the consumers must pay the cost of the product destruction.
The judge, Rex D. Stacey, accepted completely the findings of the Minnesota Department of Public Health that the Hartmann Farm was almost certainly the source of eight illnesses attributed by authorities to the milk.
The only possible glimmer of light in the whole case is that the ruling applied only to the products seized last May. There was no finding about products produced since then, about the appropriateness of the continued quarantine of the farm's products, or of whether the farm might have improved conditions in the interim. Thus, the products seized by the state a few weeks ago in the video confrontation weren't covered in the ruling.
But in light of the illnesses in May, the judge seems very much inclined to listen to the state's assessment of the situation much more seriously than it is to that of Hartmann.
He reasoned, "Hartmann argues that no test results showed the existence of any poisonous or deleterious substance which may render the food product injurious to health, which is required to prove the food is adulterated. Eight people became ill with the same rare strain of E.coli. The only commonality among these eight people was that they all consumed Hartmann products within days of becoming ill. This same rare strain of E.coli was present in samples taken from the Hartmann farm. This court has no doubt that these people became ill from consuming Hartmann products."
The judge said he gave "little weight" to the testimony of Tim Wightman, head of the Farm-to-Consumer Foundation and a dairy expert, on Hartmann's behalf. Judge Stacey recounted Wightman as testifying "that someone possibly 'could' produce 'quality milk' under" the conditions described by agriculture and public health inspectors of "substantial manure buildup in the milking area of the barn." Part of the problem the judge had with Wightman was he "did not apply his own standards to the operation; and he did not satisfactorily reconcile farm conditions with his published statements that the 'milking area should be kept clean' and that milking and holding areas should be 'scrupulously free of manure.'" The judge also noted that Wightman "conceded that MDA test results of Hartmann milk revealed standard plate counts which greatly exceed the PMO standards and Mr. Wightman's recommendations for 'raw' milk producers."
Given all this, there was no way the judge was going to interpret any of the contradictory state laws or the Minnesota Constitution on food and dairy sales in Hartmann's favor, and he didn't.
Indeed, he labeled the seized food "adulterated," and concluded, "There is no question that adulterated food cannot legally be sold or that ensuring the safety of food from farmer to table is anything but a valid exercise of the State's police power."
All of which highlights a reality that first became apparent last year, when a Canadian judge ruled in favor of Michael Schmidt. One big reason the judge was swayed by Schmidt's arguments was that there wasn't even a hint of illness in more than sixteen years of operations. Had there been illnesses clearly attributable to his dairy, there's a good chance he would have lost.
This brings me to an issue that's been raised here any number of times over the last year or so: the need for raw-dairy standards, overseen by a self-governing raw dairy association. Wisconsin dairyman Scott Trautman made the argument most convincingly on this blog a few months back, and was heavily castigated. Mark McAfee of Organic Pastures Dairy Co. has made the argument again in recent days with respect to the Hartmann situation.
The time for rigorous standards is upon us. Essentially, the Hartmann situation places a number of people, certainly me, into an awkward position. I can't condone a farmer producing product that makes people sick, yet I also can't condone the state going on a vendetta that makes it next to impossible for him to clean up his act and that targets innocent businesses and consumers for punishment. More significantly, the situation places at risk other farmers who take sanitation more seriously than Hartmann seems to. Court decisions like this set precedents that give regulators carte blanche to run roughshod (even more) over both farmer and consumer rights.
One thing I've complained a lot about is judges who won't give attention to food rights cases. Judge Stacey gave this case his attention, but unfortunately, as I suggested last June when this case emerged, it was the last case I would have wanted him to review. The only benefit I can see to possibly emerge would be if it helped push raw dairy producers and consumers toward developing and adopting a set of realistic standards, so as to hold producers accountable, and thus be able to make a more compelling legal case in favor of food rights in the future. ?