Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Federal Judge Sentences Farmers Linked to E. coli Outbreak to No Time, No Fine, No Probation

Tacoma, Washington -- September 5, 2008. Dairy farmers Michael Puckett and Anita Puckett, owners of Dee Creek Farm in Woodland, were sentenced in Federal Court Friday on charges stemming from an E. coli outbreak in 2005, but received only a $25 mandatory court assessment fee.

United States Magistrate Judge Strombom disregarded the recommendation of the Probation Office when she ruled against the proposed $250 fine and one-year probation for each defendant.

"I frankly don't see what benefit anybody gets from putting these people on probation," Strombom told the court. "I realize everybody here has come to this court agreeing to that, but I don't agree with it."

Both defense and prosecuting attorneys had argued for one year probation, and the probation office requested a $250 fine. The maximum sentence for the misdemeanor charge is one year in prison and a $100,000 fine.

"The fact that they pled guilty to this Class A misdemeanor is sufficient punishment for these two individuals," Strombom said.

Though she gave the couple six months to pay the mandatory assessment fee, they paid it before they left the courthouse.

Anita Puckett said, "We are humbled by Judge Strombom's decision. We're very happy to move past this, and are looking forward to the future."

She added, "We couldn't have made it through these last three years without all the help we were given from family, friends and supporters all over the country. We are so thankful for them."

More than 20 friends and family members attended the hearing in support of the Pucketts, and several of them began to cry as the judge pronounced the sentence.

The Pucketts pled guilty June 8 to misdemeanor charges of distributing adulterated food. The charges stemmed from cow-share participants crossing into Oregon with milk prepared under conditions where it may have contributed to injury, the plea agreement stated.

According to figures released by the Clark County Health Department, 18 people were sickened in December 2005 with a strain of E. coli that a Washington State Department of Agriculture investigation later linked to Dee Creek Farm. Five were hospitalized, and all have since fully recovered.

Dee Creek is a small, family-run farm, practicing organic methods and diversity, with offerings such as produce, grass-based meats, eggs and dairy products. The farm collectively holds several licenses through Washington State Department of Agriculture, including poultry processing and commercial kitchen for further food processing. Although the farm was licensed in May 2007 as a Grade A raw goat milk dairy, the only dairy products it now sells are raw aged and pasteurized cheeses, yogurt and other processed items.

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