Most major health organizations, including the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control, say raw milk carries a risk of disease because it hasn't been through the bacteria-destroying pasteurization process. But interest in it has been growing among people who believe pasteurization reduces milk's beneficial nutrients, and some have established networks to distribute it in violation of state law.
"With raw milk becoming a higher visibility product, the department is looking at taking a more proactive role in the investigation process," Agriculture Department spokesman Michael Schommer told The Associated Press.
The state Department of Health said this week that three people got sick after drinking unpasteurized milk from Hartmann Dairy Farm near the town of Gibbon, in southern Minnesota. A fourth person was infected with E. coli that has the same DNA fingerprint, but that case has not been definitively linked to the dairy, assistant state epidemiologist Richard Danila said.
One of the four victims is a toddler who remained hospitalized Thursday with a life-threatening illness, Danila said. Two other victims were hospitalized but have been released, and the fourth was not hospitalized. Two of the victims live in the Twin Cities area and the other two in other parts of Minnesota.
The Agriculture Department is investigating Hartmann Dairy, which is also known as M.O.M.s, or Minnesota Organic Milk, Schommer said. Consumers should dispose of any dairy products purchased under M.O.M.s or Hartmann Dairy labels, state officials said.
Dairy owner Michael Otto Hartmann of Gibbon did not return a call seeking comment Thursday.
Minnesota law limits the sale of raw milk except for, in the law's words, "occasional purchases" at farms where the milk is produced.
At least one of the people sickened by E. coli bought the milk in the Twin Cities, where raw milk clubs have arranged drop-off sites for buyers to pick up the product.
The Agriculture Department turned at least one recent case involving the sale of raw milk over to prosecutors in Hennepin County, who declined to pursue charges.
Last week, Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle vetoed a bill that would have allowed farmers to sell raw milk to customers on their farms. Currently, nine U.S. states allow retail sales, while another 19, including Minnesota, allow only direct purchases between farmers and consumers.