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Juice patrol

(article, Megan Holden)

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Every fall, my family attends an apple-cider pressing at Mike and Elizabeth Kortenhof’s home to celebrate the turning leaves and shorter days. We load our cars with kids and ladders and head to an orchard on Dixie Mountain in western Oregon’s Tualatin Valley. Invariably we have more kids than ladders, so we resort to collecting apples from the orchard’s floor as well as its ceiling.

Several hundred pounds of apples later, we’re back at the Kortenhof house, rinsing and chopping. The apples — worms, bruises, and all — are unceremoniously dumped into an antique cider press. Taking turns at the wheel, the kids press out a greenish-brown liquid. Once filtered, the luscious amber liquor goes into our waiting drinking glasses, as well as into plastic half-gallon jugs for party favors and the freezer. Children who tire at the press wheel amuse themselves by rolling out doughnut dough, powdering the golden-fried delicacies with sugar, and gobbling as many as possible.

[%image reference-image float=left width=400 caption="Apples about to be run through an old cider press."]

I relish this rite of autumn, but I also know that unpasteurized juice products were the source of numerous instances of foodborne illness in the 1990s. What risks, I’ve wondered, were we running by blithely drinking our freshly gathered fruit?

In 1996, E. coli 0157:H7 tainted Odwalla apple juice in the western U.S., sickening some 70 people and killing an infant. The year before, salmonella contaminated orange juice, infecting visitors to an amusement park in Orlando, Florida. And in 1999, salmonella in Sun Orchard orange juice caused one death and more than 400 people to fall ill. 

In fact, the FDA estimates that 16,000 to 48,000 Americans experience illnesses related to juice each year. While it is rare to be infected by fresh, unpasteurized, untreated juice, there are still significant risks, especially for people with weakened immune systems, the elderly, young children, and infants.  

Contrary to popular belief, even high-acid fruits, such as apple, berry, and orange, can carry E. coli and salmonella. Once consumed, these critters can cause fever, headache, cramping, diarrhea, and vomiting. Occasionally, the symptoms are severe enough to be fatal. 

Scientists have also recently begun to link E. coli and other foodborne pathogens to long-term health problems. While difficult to document and relatively unstudied, high blood pressure, kidney damage, and arthritis can show up 10 to 20 years after an acute episode of severe poisoning. 

How does fruit become contaminated with these pathogens? To begin with, the orchard is not exactly a clean place. Bacteria travel via irrigation water, compost, and sewage. Animals contaminate fruit with bird droppings and feces, and insects spread disease as well. And of course, where you have cattle, you have manure. Grazing cattle in or near fruit orchards increases the chance of pathogen-laden fruit. 

The ick factor gets worse when humans enter the process. Workers harvest, sort, and process the fruit, and at each stage can introduce pathogens through poor hygiene.

To get rid of potential contamination, juice manufacturers process their product. Pasteurization, in which the juice is heated to a high temperature to kill disease-carrying microbes, is the most common method. In fact, 98 percent of the all juice sold in the U.S. is pasteurized. Juice concentrate is also effectively pasteurized when heated as part of the concentration process. So all those frozen concentrates and juices sold in shelf-stable containers are risk-free. 

Beginning in 2001, the FDA established new regulations to reduce the presence of bacteria in juice production. As part of this new legislation, today you can find “treated” juice, sold as “fresh-squeezed,” at your grocery store. 

These juices are treated in a variety of ways. Ultraviolet light can be used to radiate a fruit’s surface or its juice. Flash pasteurization, pioneered by the Odwalla juice company, heats juice quickly to a higher temperature than regular pasteurization, then cools it rapidly to protect flavor and nutritional value. High-pressure treatment and irradiation also kill pathogens. Each of these methods renders unpasteurized juice as safe as if it had been traditionally pasteurized with heat — provided the processor scrupulously cleans its equipment and seeks to reduce the presence of bacteria from field to factory. 

You can still buy raw, untreated juice in the refrigerated section of grocery stores, health-food stores, cider mills, and farm markets. Most untreated juice bears a warning label, unless it’s been processed according to the FDA’s 2001 principles of reducing foodborne pathogens. Even without the warning label, the FDA recommends that consumers make untreated juice safe by boiling it. 

Armed with my research, our cider-pressing party implemented tougher safety standards this past year. We still used windfallen fruit, despite our kids’ gleeful discovery of deer scat at the bottom of the orchard and several bird nests tucked into branches. We rinsed the apples in buckets of hydrogen peroxide and water, followed by a second water rinse. We reminded everyone to wash their hands before taking a turn at the cutting table. Finally, we told the older folks and those with young children to enjoy hot cider at the pressing and to boil any cider they lugged home before drinking it.

The stats from 2007's cider party? Thirty crates of apples, 750 pounds total, 7 hours to press 10 crates of apples into 13 1/2 gallons of cider, 2 crates of apples saved for eating, and zero sick people.

Still, at the grocery store these days, I look for only one thing on a juice label: whether it’s pasteurized or treated. If it’s raw, I don’t buy it.

p(bio). Megan Holden writes about food from Portland, Oregon.

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