It's a beautiful fall here in New England once again. The change of the seasons brings familiar sights and activities for families. But unfortunately for public health professionals, fall also brings a familiar concern.
In this case, it is not the pumpkin carving, Halloween candy or the leaf peeping that cause worry, but the consumption of unpasteurized apple cider that is still produced by a handful of local orchards.
The good news is that if your favorite cider producer pasteurizes their cider and follows required guidelines, then this article will be of little concern to you. If not, we urge you to give the subject some more thought so you can understand the public health risks.
Drinking hot apple cider is a common ending to a fun day of apple picking or a visit to the local farm, but we don't want those fun times to surprise you with days or weeks of complications from food borne illness. Vomiting, diarrhea, cramps and sometimes hospitalization can result from this simple choice.
We're not trying to scare you away from your old traditions, but let's get right to the truth about unpasteurized apple cider. The truth is there can be NO assurance that unpasteurized cider is safe.
The biggest risk from unpasteurized apple cider is food borne illness caused by E. Coli 0157:H7. You may remember this from the "Jack in the Box" hamburger outbreak in the 1990s. Here in Massachusetts, this bacteria earned its claim to fame in 1991 through sickness caused by unpasteurized apple cider. Twenty-three people were ill, and four children were hospitalized from cider they consumed at a southeast Massachusetts cider mill.
At the time, this seemed surprising to public health investigators, as the pH of cider was generally thought to be too low to support bacteria growth. The investigation found that the farm procedures for cider production included the washing of the apples in potable water and other good practices, but also noted the common use of "drops" in cider production. Drops are apples that were picked up off the ground, where E. Coli and other bacteria exist naturally. Another possible source of contamination was the feces of deer and other mammals that frequent the orchard for those tasty apples. Once the process was understood, the wheels of regulation began to turn.