The Ecologist

 

The other cider the farm gate

Ross Hume Hall

1st June, 2000

Ross Hume Hall explains how bureaucracy and regulations are crushing small farmers in the USA

Does the following enticing notice printed on jugs of unpasteurized apple cider make you want to buy the product? 'This product has not been pasteurized and therefore may contain harmful bacteria, which can cause serious illness in children, the elderly and persons with weakened immune systems.’

‘I hated putting that warning on my cider,’ says Nick Meyer, proprietor of Chapin Orchard, Essex Junction, Vermont, USA. ‘It equates cider with cigarettes.’

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), however, believes that drinking unpasteurized cider and smoking cigarettes are equal threats to your health. In fact, the FDA was so alarmed by the threat of – would you believe it – ‘cider poisoning’, that in 1998 it ruled all cider must be pasteurized. Following protests, it exempted family-size operations like that of Nick Meyer, but is now reconsidering the exemption. The result could devastate small cider makers.

Charles Brown, of Castleton, Vermont, runs a farm and apple orchard. He makes 10 to 15, 000 gallons of unpasteurized cider a season, most of which he sells at his farm stand. Cider, Brown says, keeps his farm in business. It draws customers to his farm stand. They come in for a jug of cider and also buy apples, apple pies, jellies, and vegetables. But if the FDA requires pasteurization, he may well go bust. The pasteurizing equipment required by the FDA alone would cost him $15,000, plus about $1,500 a year for maintenance.

This is just one example of how unnecessary, bureaucratic regulation, designed for the benefit of supermarkets, factory farms and exporters, is killing the small producer. Cider in the United States is defined as unfermented, unfiltered apple juice. It has a rich taste, which like the taste of fine wines, varies among individual cider producers. Pasteurization heats the cider to 160 degrees F (71 degrees C) which ruins the taste of the product, in response to a negligible risk.

And the risk is negligible. Cider, according to Steve Justis of the Vermont Department of Agriculture, Food and Markets, ‘is not an inherently dangerous product.’ Its acidity suppresses most pathogenic bacteria. One pathogen, E.coli O157:H7, does survive in cider, but the likelihood of contamination from it is exceedingly rare.

The FDA themselves admit this. They tested unpasteurized cider from some 350 different makers in four states; not one sample contained E.coli O157:H7. (1)  However, in 1996, one batch of unpasteurized cider made by a large, commercial juice company, Odwalla  Inc. was apparently contaminated with E.coli O157:H7. Some 60 people who drank the juice became ill. One, a 16-month old girl, died. The company, shaken by the adverse publicity voluntarily tightened its manufacturing practices.

The large food conglomerates and, particularly, the mass producers of fruit juices, believed this negative publicity over unpasteurized cider rubbed off on all commercial foods.  They pressured FDA into pursuing an unrelenting war against unpasteurized cider, under the slogan ‘make America’s food supply safe’.

So, in 1998, the FDA issued its ruling to pasteurize all ciders (with the exemption of apple orchards making less than 40,000 gallons a year). But the exemption may be short lived.  Steve Justis says the big juice producers just want the unpasteurized cider issue ‘to go away’. A survey by Kate Demong, a research student at Brown, shows that 8 out of 10 Vermont family cider makers say they would go out of business if the FDA revokes the exemption.(2) It also suggests that the FDA doesn’t care. The agency, says Demong, doesn’t regulate in response to sound scientific evidence but rather ‘to social and political motivations.’

The lack of any real link between regulation and scientific evidence – or common sense for that matter – is a constant source of problems for all small farmers. Jack and Anne Lazor operate Butterworks Farm, in Westfield, Vermont. They process the milk from their three dozen Jersey cows into a quality yogurt far superior to any mass-produced yogurt. As part of the farm’s fertilizer programme, Jack uses a mineral dust from a cement kiln. The government inspector says he cannot do that because cement kilns burn toxic waste. Some cement kilns do, says Jack, but the Quebec kiln, from which he buys the dust, does not burn toxic waste. Tough, says the inspector.

This is the problem. Regulations are designed largely for the benefit of large producers. If small producers can’t fit in –well, they go out of business. And that, for the big producers, is very convenient indeed.

1.  Report of 1997 Inspections of Fresh, Unpasteurized Apple Cider Manufacturers, U.S. Food and Drug Administration, January, 1999.

2.  Demong, K. Thesis, Brown University, Department of Environmental Studies, 1997-98.

This article first appeared in the Ecologist June 2000

 

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