Health regulations squeeze apple cider Cider: Because of a few bad apples in other states, old-fashioned natural apple cider is in short supply this fall.

October 30, 1998|By Marcia Myers | Marcia Myers,SUN STAFF

It is a season of discontent for cider makers across Maryland, and for purists who consider autumn incomplete without a taste of the darkly sweet tang of fresh-pressed, unprocessed apple juice.

Once a harvest staple, the beverage is fast disappearing from grocery stores, farm markets and even roadside stands under the pressure of new federal warnings about a dangerous strain of E. coli bacteria and sharper scrutiny by the state health department.

Making and selling autumn's signature treat has, in short, become a test of economics and ingenuity for fruit farmers across Maryland.

"You can't find it, except at a few farm stands and cider mills," said Art Senkel, who oversees cider operations for the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. "In supermarkets it's almost impossible to find. The farmers have us and the FDA beating at their doors, and I think they feel a lot happening all at once."

Some farms have closed their cider operations, some have switched to costly pasteurizing, and others, like Alan Baugher of Baugher's Orchard near Westminster, are experimenting with innovative techniques to ensuresafe cider while preserving the unique, old-fashioned qualities of the raw juice.

Cider novices and aficionados can appreciate the differences pasteurizing makes, Baugher says -- "It changes the quality of the cider, the zest."

John Martin of Ivy Hill Farm near Smithsburg sees it the same way.

"What the consumer wants -- particularly up here in Western Maryland -- they like cider to get a little bubbly, if you know what I mean."

The shrinking availability of natural cider is a result of a biological culprit that has made no known appearance in this state, but whose threat has been well-documented in five outbreaks nationwide in the past five years.

In 1996, a 16-month-old child died from drinking Odwalla unpasteurized apple juice contaminated with the microbe, known as E. coli 0157: H7. Investigators believe the apples might have fallen onto the ground and became contaminated through contact with cow or deer droppings before being pressed.

While such cases are extremely rare and none has ever been reported in this area, the reverberations are being felt in local orchards.

Makers of unpasteurized cider, who typically put their apples through chlorine baths and washes before pressing, said they felt trapped this fall between two difficult options: new, federally required warning labels notifying consumers of E. coli's potential health risks to young children, the elderly or infirm; or investing in costly pasteurizing systems in order to avoid the labels.

Steve Lewis opted against both. He pressed no cider at all, breaking a three-generation tradition for a family that typically markets 10,000 gallons of natural cider each year for customers of Lewis Orchards and Farm Market in Western Maryland.

"We're treading water," he said. "That label almost reads like a death penalty. We don't want to ruin the image of something as wholesome as apple cider."

Spending $30,000 on a pasteurizing system was out of the question, he said.

"We couldn't justify the cost. With the amount of cider we produce, it would take years for us to make it up."

Instead, he bought pasteurized cider from a distributor in Chambersburg, Pa., a decision he says resulted in a 35 percent drop in his cider sales. By next year, he hopes to have installed a $15,000 ultra-violet treatment system that he hopes will be as effective as pasteurization without significantly altering the juice.

He keeps a list of names and phone numbers of customers who have called in search of the natural cider. "We could probably sell 100 gallons right off the top without any problem at all," he said.

In Baltimore County, Steve Weber sacrificed plans for a new pickup truck and shifted his production from unpasteurized cider to pasteurized. Weber's Cider Mill Farm is one of the state's largest cider retailers.

"In rare, rare, rare cases, this E. coli has the ability to survive in cider," Weber said. "A lot of our customers are mothers with young children. It just wasn't worth it, no matter how small the risk was. We didn't give up much on quality and we gained a lot on safety."

No one has proposed a law that would require cider pasteurization, although some farmers fear that could occur soon.

Meanwhile, state health officials have begun a program to educate cider producers about the E. coli risk. They test the apples and equipment and evaluate the safety of pressing techniques by measuring how effectively bacteria levels are reduced.

Nearly all of the dozen or so cider producers in Maryland have been through the program since it started last year, and they describe their relationship with state inspectors as collaborative.

"I guess I'm the type of person who supports food not having to be overly processed," said Senkel, of the state health department. When given the choice, he said, he prefers unpasteurized cider.

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