In the end, Michael Hartmann made the best deal he could–if he was going to save his family–when he pleaded guilty Monday to two misdemeanors in connection with sales of raw milk and other foods, and agreed to pay a fine of $585. Seven other misdemeanor charges were dismissed in the process.
According to news accounts, he was placed under non-supervised parole for six months and ordered to comply with all state labeling and licensing regulations.
In the end, also, Hartmann went alone to his fate. He didn’t want supporters present, and he has many. Perhaps he went alone because this particular court case had become a private matter between himself and the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. There was no glory in copping a plea, so why have supporters waste their time and energy coming, he may have reasoned. (He hasn’t been talking to the media, nor has he wanted media attention when I’ve spoken with him over the last year.)
So why make a deal with the enforcers he has challenged for years? There obviously was no fear on his part in dealing with the brutes at the MDA. The fear was for his family. You see, the MDA had gotten the local prosecutor to file similar misdemeanor charges against his wife, Diane, and his brother, Roger, and an associate–essentially taken them legally hostage. And no way was Michael Hartmann going to let them be exposed to the ongoing pressures of a trial and possible jail time so the MDA thugs could say they got someone in the Hartmann family.
So the deal was basically a way to protect his family from the MDA’s ravages, according to associates, something he has been intent on doing since the matter first came up earlier this year. Being the man he is, he decided to sacrifice himself on behalf of his family–the deal also provided for dropping all the charges against his family members.
Hartmann was in a box of sorts, stemming from eight illnesses from E.coli O157:H7 that Minnesota public health authorities linked to his dairy in May 2010. It would have been very difficult for him to gain an acquittal so long as the prosecutors could bring any of those made ill as witnesses in the trial against him. There were also accusations of four illnesses the following fall from campylobacter and three from cryptosporadium, a parasite.
Through it all, Hartmann has steadfastly denied his milk made anyone sick. He argued that tests showing the presence of pathogens on his farm never showed up in any of many tests done on his milk. Moreover, dozens of his loyal customers say they have never met anyone who became ill from his milk, and most continue to drink it without concern. (There is some interesting commentary from supporters at one Minnesota news site.)
I know there are those who feel Hartmann has gotten what he deserves via the prosecutions of himself and his family. Just keep in mind that almost no food producer anywhere in the U.S. gets hit with criminal charges in connection with food-borne illnesses. Even owners of Peanut Corp. of America, whose peanut butter in 2008 killed seven and sickened more than 200, haven’t been prosecuted, and with a five year statute of limitations rapidly approaching, it seems unlikely they will be. According to food safety lawyer Bill Marler, “in 15 years of involvement in every major foodborne illness case, there have been only a handful of prosecutions and fewer convictions.”
The reality is that such cases alleging illness are mostly adjudicated in civil court. According to local media, there is a suit against Michael Hartmann in civil court in Minnesota by the parents of a two-year-old boy who was allegedly sickened by Hartmann’s milk, seeking $50,000 of medical expenses.
Criminal charges in this case were way outside the bounds of real-life practices in this country…unless you are the MDA and you have a personal score to settle with a farmer you detest.
On the subject of copping a plea, Victoria Bloch, one of the original Rawesome Three, has an interesting retrospective about her experience as a criminal defendant on the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund site.
About her decision eventually to accept a plea deal, she says, “The day before the (pretrial) hearing, the D.A. offered me a misdemeanor plea that I could live with (essentially, having sold one jar of unlabelled milk); Sharon was offered a separate misdemeanor just before the start of the hearing. We had both wanted to be vindicated at a trial, before a jury of our peers. But we had to take into account fiscal reality, as well as the ongoing toll on our families and ourselves. So we each accepted the plea offered, ending the saga with a sigh instead of a yell, but grateful for an end nonetheless.”