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Settlement reached in Walworth County raw milk case

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Pedro Oliveira Jr.
December 16, 2009
— Walworth County officials Monday reached an agreement with the owners of a rural Elkhorn farm shut down after more than 30 people fell ill from consuming their raw milk.

The district attorney’s office filed 24 citations against Zinniker Farm, N7399 Bowers Road, charging the sale of non-compliance milk. The citations carry a total maximum penalty of $24,000.


As part of the agreement, the Zinnikers admitted the violations but the case will be held open and they will not be fined.


If Mark and Petra Zinniker were again caught selling raw milk, they would be fined the maximum—$24,000—and would lose their license to sell milk.


According to agriculture officials, 35 people from Walworth, Waukesha and Racine counties were diagnosed with a bacterial infection that causes diarrhea, cramping and vomiting.


All said they had consumed raw milk, and 30 said they got it from Zinniker Farm. Twenty-one victims were under the age of 18, and one was hospitalized. Twenty-seven of the victims were in Walworth and Waukesha counties.


Tests by state officials showed the bacteria from 25 of the patients had a DNA fingerprint matched to bacteria found in feces from cows at the Zinniker farm.


The Zinnikers can no longer sell raw milk, but they can continue to ship their products to a licensed dairy plant for pasteurization.


Assistant District Attorney Zeke Wiedenfeld, who worked out the settlement with the Zinnikers, said the intention is not to punish the farmers.


"We're trying to protect the public and enforce the laws that are in place regarding the sale of raw milk," said Wiedenfeld, who grew up in a small family dairy farm in Lake Mills.


"I don't think there's any intention to make an example out of the Zinnikers. But I do hope it brings awareness to the average farmer that it is illegal to be selling raw milk to people."


Mark and Petra Zinniker, who own and run the farm, did not immediately return phone calls seeking comment Tuesday.


The Zinnikers met with state officials in September, and the Walworth County Judicial Center was flooded with people who obtained raw milk from the Zinnikers and wanted to participate in the meeting. They were not allowed in, so they stayed outside the District Attorney's Office for about two hours, waiting for the Zinnikers to come out.


Some said they hadn't been buying raw milk because they obtained it through a cow-share program, in which individuals pay farmers to board their animals. Under the program, one or more individuals own the animals but have no ownership of the farm.


They said the arrangement should make it legal for them to have raw milk because Wisconsin statutes allow farmers and their families to consume their own raw milk—they just can't sell it.


Wiedenfeld said selling raw milk is illegal in Wisconsin, even under a cow-share program.


Wisconsin statutes require individuals to be bona fide owners with a "real financial stake" to get raw milk from a farm, said Donna Gilson, a spokeswoman for the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.



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