STUARTS DRAFT, Va. -- Every October, John Hailey's aging press puts out about 20,000 gallons of fresh apple cider. It's a hobby even his beef cattle enjoy, having acquired a taste for the leftover apple pulp.
"People from Lynchburg, Blacksburg and Newport News come to me," said Hailey, who runs the cider mill from his farm off Route 608 in Augusta County. "There aren't many of us left."
Hailey is one of about 40 licensed cider producers in Virginia, a meager number that could shrink further if the federal government makes pasteurization of their homemade product mandatory.
"If I had to pasteurize, it would put me out of business," Hailey said. "Business is marginal as it is."
The Food and Drug Administration proposal is one of several that have surfaced in the wake of a deadly E. coli outbreak in the Western states that has been traced to apple cider.
One child died in Colorado and about 60 people became sick after drinking the Oct. 7 shipment of the California-based Odwalla Juice Co.'s fresh, unpasteurized cider, officials said. The case is still under investigation. A heating process that kills the E. coli bacteria, pasteurization is an easy remedy with a high price tag.
"The equipment is out of the reach of a lot of small cider producers," said Julia Daly with the U.S. Apple Association in McLean, Va. "The estimates we've gotten are $20,000 to $200,000 for equipment, depending on the size of the operation. ... It's fair to say the industry is very concerned."
Apples contributed about $30 million to the state's economy in 1996, according to the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Cider is one of the few ways growers can get a return on small or blemished apples that are unsuitable for the fresh market.
The FDA believes that the bacteria got into the juice supply through apples that were picked off the ground for processing. The theory is that the dropped apples became contaminated by deer feces, because E. coli is carried by animals. But banning the use of dropped apples has met with strong opposition. Apple growers in New England, for instance, said their apple supply would fall significantly short of the market's demand if windfall fruit couldn't be used, Daly said.
Along with pasteurization, the FDA is considering other, less expensive solutions that won't break the small-scale cider producer.
One is to make processors identify points in their operation where fruit can become contaminated and set up a monitoring system to prevent it from happening, Daly said. The apple association is researching the effectiveness of a sanitizer currently used to clean poultry, she added.
Apart from its cost, pasteurization hasn't caught on with everyone because the process is said to kill the juice's flavor.
"I don't know what it does, but it tastes less like apples," said Richard Marini, a fruit specialist with Virginia Cooperative Extension Service. Large juice-processing plants with the exception of Odwalla pasteurize their product to increase shelf life. Fresh cider, while perhaps better-tasting, will ferment if not refrigerated, he said.
Henry Chiles ships apples representing about 50,000 gallons of fresh cider from his Carter Mountain Orchard in Albemarle County each fall. Like other apple growers who don't want the headache of having to press the fruit, Chiles ships apples for processing and brings a portion of the cider back to sell locally.
Pasteurization likely will make his business a little tougher, but Chiles said he's going to wait and see what the FDA decides. "I don't think all the facts are in," he said. "The main thing, which you know through experience, is if you use a real good product going in, you're going to get a good product coming out. You'll be totally safe."
Pub Date: 12/06/96