Nov. 4 2015 03:35 PM

Officials say apple cider at St. Johns mill safe to enjoy

LANSING—Apple cider seekers shouldn’t be deterred this fall by what one expert is calling a unique, isolated incident of tainted cider in St. Johns.

“The recent events at Uncle John’s are very unusual and very rare for our apple cider industry in Michigan,” said Bob Tritten, an MSU Extension fruit educator who has worked with cider mills for nearly 30 years. “Cider has had a safe track record over the last 15, 20, years and this is an isolated incident.”

The Department of Agriculture and Rural Development issued a consumer advisory for Uncle John’s Cider Mill on Oct. 27 after finding Shiga-toxin producing E. coli bacteria during a random department inspection.

Although the department’s investigation had not yet been completed, Uncle John’s began selling cider again on Oct. 28, citing other lab tests that came back negative for E. coli, according to a company statement posted on Facebook.

Potentially 1,200 gallons of cider produced on Oct. 17 and sold in jugs or as a component in other products were contaminated with the toxin, the department advisory stated.

“I think people should enjoy cider just fine,” department Communications Director Jennifer Holton said. “This is not an endemic issue. It was 1,200 gallons produced on one day and it was sold during a limited time frame.”

At this time, no cases of E. coli illnesses have been reported, Holton said.

Tritten said given Michigan’s nearly 120 cider mills, the estimated gallons produced each year in the millions and the few past cases of contamination, the scale of the consumer advisory is sizable only in relative terms.

“I have never seen an incident of this scale, and I’m not saying that it’s a big incident — it’s relatively small in terms of our industry — so it truly is rare,” he said.

Rebecca Crane, co-owner of Crane’s Pie Pantry Restaurant and Winery in Fennville, said the last time she remembers an incident involving E. coli in cider was 20 years ago.

“Any time there’s a health scare with food and the public, it’s a huge concern with all of us,” said Crane, whose family has pressed cider since 1968. “We do not want to produce a product that makes anyone sick in any way.”

Tritten said nearly 20 years ago a national juice producer had an incident of E. coli in its cider that resulted in stricter regulations of the industry.

Ed Hahnenberg, owner of Hahnenberg Farm Market and Cider Mill in Lake Leelanau, said a number of precautions can prevent E. coli in unpasteurized cider.

These include washing the fruit with disinfectants and not using fallen, rotten or too bruised apples, Hahnenberg said.

In 2014, an Ellsworth man received a two-to-four-year prison sentence for blatant negligence of safety standards in making apple cider, according to the department.

Although the man, James Ruster, sold his cider at a local farmers market, he was not licensed to do so and was told he fell short of safety standards, but he continued to sell anyway, the department stated.

Ruster’s contaminated cider hospitalized two children and two adults with E. coli.

“It is unfortunate that it takes a case like this to point out the potential for harm from producing food items in an unsafe manner,” department Director Jamie Clover Adams said at the time.

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