At the Common Ground Fair this weekend, apple farmers Bob and Mia Sewall were so busy with customers looking to buy their 100 percent organic apple cider that they could barely sit down for more than just a few moments.
Earnings at the Common Ground Fair are a large part of the Sewall Orchards' income. They also sell cider at their farm in Lincolnville and at farmer's markets, and they used to sell wholesale, but not anymore. Last year, the FDA paid a visit to Sewall's Orchards and found the farm out of compliance with FDA rules. The rules include a so-called five-log reduction in pathogens - which requires pasteurization.
"That's essentially sterilizing your food," Bob Sewall says. "And we focus on living foods, whole foods. We press an apple. That's pretty much all we do for processing. And so it shut down my markets in the stores and the co-ops and local small stores. I mean everybody that does a third party sale, I can't sell to them."
Sewall says that in 30 years, no one has ever told him they got sick from his cider. But he says there aren't many options for people who want to produce and sell organic, unpasteurized cider. He doesn't want to sterilize his cider, because he says that process rids it of nearly all of its health benefits.
"Cider is the most unfriendly food for pathogens in the raw state," Sewall says. "Essentially you've destroyed the amino acids, you've destroyed a lot of the essential vitamins and made it a sterile food. You're losing your basic building blocks of your nutrition."
The FDA rules target E.Coli along with other diseases. Russell Libby, Director of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, says some cider processors have agreed to pasteurize, while others like Sewall have pulled out of the wholesale market entirely.
"To pasteurize and maintain the records that are required, you have to use a very sophisticated system," Libby says. "So essentially you're having to cook your juice for a short period of time and you have to document it for every batch. And the machinery is expensive, it's upwards of $50,000 for the equipment and so very few small farms want to spend $50,000 on a seasonal cider pressing business."
The FDA defends its criteria, saying it first ruled on pasteurized cider in 2001. "That was based on a long history of food-borne illness outbreaks associated with unpasteurized juices," says Martin Stutsman, a consumer safety officer with the FDA. "We've had a number of outbreaks associated with apple cider and fresh pressed apple cider and it's very easy for apples to come in off the trees with pathogens already incorporated into the apple."
Stutsman says that since the rule, the federal Centers for Disease Control have measured a significant decrease in the number of outbreaks associated with juices and ciders. But Bob Sewall thinks the FDA should be less concerned about small organic apple farmers and cider producers, whom he says can be self-regulating.
"We're a dying species if we're not supported," he says. "And people have really rallied to our cider club and put in bulk orders and they come to the farm. And that's been hugely supportive and financially helpful."
Since the FDA does not have jurisdiction over farm stands and farmers' markets, organic unpasteurized cider is usually available there.