Agrifood Safety Produce Bites

Safe Cider Production

November 01, 2021 Michigan On-Farm Produce Safety
Agrifood Safety Produce Bites
Safe Cider Production
Show Notes Transcript

This episode features Landen Tetil, Produce Safety Technician with the Marquette County Conservation District, and Les Bourquin, Professor in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition at Michigan State University. They talk about produce safety risks to keep in mind when it comes to on-farm apple cider production.

Alison Work:

Hello and welcome to the agrifood safety produce bites podcast, where we discuss all things produce safety, and dive into the rules and regulations surrounding the Food Safety Modernization Act Produce Safety Rule.

Landen Tetil:

Hi, I'm Landon Tetil and I am a produce safety technician located out of Marquette County Conservation District, and I focus most of my time on providing on-farm technical service to produce growers, fruit and vegetable growers, in the Upper Peninsula, on their on-farm food safety practices.

Les Bourquin:

Hi, I'm Les Bourquin. I'm a professor in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition at Michigan State. My appointment is split between extension and research. And I have worked for the last 25 years or so as a food safety specialist working pretty much from all the way from primary production on the farm all the way through consumption, but have worked a great deal with the apple industry and the apple cider industry in particular since I started at MSU.

Landen Tetil:

So today, we're gonna be talking about the apple industry and cider production, on-farm cider production and potential food safety risks that come with this industry. So I guess I want to start off by asking you, Les, why is this concern? Why would food safety be something that we would want to focus on in on-farm cider production?

Les Bourquin:

The cider industry has a very long history, particularly in states like Michigan and others that have a lot of apple production. But we have learned over the years that there are some significant food safety risks that can be associated with this product, if it's not made appropriately, if you don't follow good practices. The main concern with these products is potential contamination with pathogens, and particularly pathogenic ecoli. When pathogenic ecoli, such as O157H7 are present, it is a rare event, but it's a very significant event that can cause severe illness and death for individuals who are exposed to it. So the prevalence of actually finding pathogens in this product is quite low, but it does happen with enough frequency that we do still see some outbreaks associated with it.

Landen Tetil:

Yeah. So we were talking about finding these pathogens, and I, I'm wondering if this would be a good time to talk about harvesting from the tree or harvesting ground apples and what kind of difference that makes in terms of the likelihood of having a problem in your cider.

Les Bourquin:

Actually, from a regulatory standpoint now, it's actually not legal to manufacture unpasteurized or untreated cider using apples that have fallen to the ground, or what we call windfalls, or some people call grounders. That was not the case in, you know, up until the late 90s, when we were starting to see a larger number of outbreaks linked to these products. And it's probably quite likely that many of the outbreaks that we've seen over the years associated with apple cider that's not been pasteurized has really been a consequence of contamination coming in with a fruit. So if you think about this, if you're collecting apples off the orchard floor, you're also probably picking up other types of contamination. And depending on how you harvest those apples and how you collect them, you may be collecting a lot of potential contamination that could end up directly in the apples as they come into the processing facility and potentially end up in the juice. Fortunately, we've seen a lot less or a lot fewer outbreaks associated with with unpasteurized apple cider in recent years, and I think that's really largely attributable to good practices that have been put in place at the farm and and the harvesting levels, and making sure that the processors are following good practices and hygiene once the products are at the facilities. So from the standpoint of making cider, if you want to manufacture cider, these days, you have to use basically a tree picked fruit and it needs to be handled in a way that minimizes the potential for contamination before it goes into processing.

Landen Tetil:

Yeah, so I think that this might be a good time to clarify that we've been saying cider, and what we mean is sweet cider, so not hard cider. Yep, so we're not talking about the cider that has been fermented to contain alcohol. And I think that this is also a good point to sort of introduce the Produce Safety Rule, because Les has been talking about good practices, good handling practices from the manufacturing side, from good manufacturing practices, but on-farm food safety practices are also just as important. And so the introduction of the federal minimum standards for the growing, harvesting, packing, and holding of fresh produce known as the Produce Safety Rule, sets forth a lot of these standards to be used on farm. And so that's, you know, good worker hygiene, and health, so not picking while you're sick. And that's good harvesting practices, so washing your hands, using clean containers, holding the sides of your ladders instead of the rung so you're not, you're not coming into cross contamination with whatever is on the bottom of your shoes touching the part of the ladder where your hands are touching. And then storing them in a place where they're not going to be contaminated too. And I guess, even beyond that, too, and maybe Les, you could talk about this too, how important is calling out the maybe less than perfect apples, either when it reaches reaches the processing plant or before it reaches the processing plant.

Les Bourquin:

Sure. There's a couple of reasons why culling damaged or rotten or other types of damaged fruit prior to processing is really important. One of those reasons is that damage is a point of entry for potential pathogens. So these microorganisms can potentially get into the fruit and potentially proliferate under the right conditions. From the standpoint of the the cider industry, probably the the more common issue that we see as a consequence of rot or damaged fruit going into processing is a situation with the presence of a mycotoxin, called patulin, which is produced by a fungus, or a few different types of fungi that can actually grow on apples. And these fungi, primarily, the one that we're worried about is Penicillium expansive. It's the specific fungus that kind of grows as a bluish gray mold on apples that many people have probably seen and not realized what it was. But that mold can actually produce a mycotoxin that can have toxicity against humans as the mold grows on the fruit. It can actually be very aggressive also from the standpoint of how fast that mold can penetrate into an apple. And the fungus is kind of opportunistic. It will be able to invade and grow quite quickly in damaged fruit. So if you have apples that have, say impact damage from dropping them into a bin or, you know, bashing them against each other, that's a point of entry for these fungi to take hold and be able to start proliferating. That's actually a significant challenge for the industry making sure that they're managing that appropriately and making sure that they're culling out rotten or damaged fruit before it goes into pressing for cider.

Landen Tetil:

I think this is a really good point to bring up too, that a lot of people I know and I think a general sort of assumption with cider making, especially small scale, sort of like, down on the farm cider making is, you know, just throw in any old apple because you're making it into juice or cider, so it doesn't matter the quality of the apple before you press it. And that's just simply not true.

Les Bourquin:

Yeah, not at all. I mean, we want to make sure that anyone who's, you know, kind of going into this business, if they're entering it for the first time, that they're very cognizant of the fact that you can mess this up pretty quickly if you don't have good practices.

Landen Tetil:

Yeah, and there's, you know, so what the Produce Safety Rule is to fresh produce farmers, there's also a federal regulation for cider makers, too, isn't there Les? The juice HACCP?

Les Bourquin:

Right. So whether or not a cider maker is going to be subject to that rule really depends. And the main thing it depends on is whether or not they're actually wholesaling any product or if they are custom processing any product So under the federal juice HACCP regulation, if a cider maker is manufacturing on their own farm and selling from their own farm market, they can actually take what we call a retail exemption. So if they're not wholesaling any product to other entities, like they're not selling cider through retail outlets that they don't own, they can actually operate as a retail establishment just like a small independent grocery store or restaurant would be regulated in the US. Michigan for those processors who are exempt under this, this rule also have Michigan cider GMPs that they need to comply with, and those are available from the Michigan Department of Ag and Rural Development, on their website. The trigger for cider makers to actually end up under federal regulation is if they have any wholesale contracts or if they do any custom processing in any quantity. And if they engage in those activities, and they're subject to the FDA juice HACCP regulation, and they're actually required, not only to comply with the regulation, which is fairly detailed, but they're also required to use a process that would achieve what we call a five log reduction, and pathogens of concern.

Landen Tetil:

Yeah, so I guess what I'm hearing is really just basically, if a, if a cider maker is, is any larger than, you know, for example, a farm stand selling homemade fresh cider that would typically be raw these, these rules and regulations are likely to apply to them.

Les Bourquin:

Right. I mean, we had done a lot of survey research with the industry years ago. And I think on average, you know, the majority of the cider makers in the state of Michigan were producing less than 10,000 gallons a year. And many of them were considerably smaller than that. So it's likely not going to make sense for them to invest in a lot of expensive technology to, you know, to be able to wholesale or operate under, you know, in accordance with FDA regulation. I think it becomes more practical if you're a larger processor that has scale. There's a couple other points, I guess, I would also like to mention. Just to pick up first on one thing that you had mentioned, you talked about fermentation, and that that's actually a very interesting case and fermenting apple cider to make hard cider is actually extremely effective at both destroying pathogens, and also destroying patulin. So in the case of hard cider, actually, it's not a product that is any more subject to the FDA juice HACCP regulation, it's regulated differently. But the process of fermentation in and of itself is also quite effective at destroying the pathogens and mitigating any concerns about the the mycotoxin that we talked about earlier. So it's, I wouldn't say that that's something you can do to forgive all problems with a potentially bad batches, cider, but that is a viable option. Sometimes for cider makers, if you have a contaminated batch, they can legally divert that product into making vinegar or other types of fermented products. Again, that's something they want to do in consultation with the regulatory authorities, but it's an option and it does work.

Landen Tetil:

Yeah. And who doesn't love a hard cider? So it's a win win situation there.

Les Bourquin:

You know, it's another thing that I guess I forgot to mention earlier is that, by its very nature, apple cider tends to have a pretty acidic pH. So actually, most pathogens, or really all the pathogens that we're concerned about actually don't grow very well at all at that pH. It's too acidic for them. But they do survive reasonably well at that at that pH and they can survive for several weeks. So that's the reason why, when we talk about preventing contamination, when the fruit is harvested and how it's handled and things like that, that becomes really critical. It's not that the pathogens are actually growing in the product once it's made. They've been brought in during the process and they can persist there.

Landen Tetil:

Absolutely. And it's it's so hard to wash a pathogen off a piece of produce once it's on there, and so preventing that contamination in the first place is really the entire premise behind the Produce Safety Rule, and it's just so important to producing a safe product.

Les Bourquin:

One other thing I just want to mention, and we get questions about this oftentimes this time of the year now that we're insider season is, you will occasionally see unpasteurized apple cider sitting out at room temperature and retail displays, and I guess my comment on that is I don't think it's a great practice because it is really hard on the shelf life of the product. You sometimes see products sitting out at room temperature and it'll actually start bubbling. You'll see that occasionally and that's actually the fermentation beginning. So it becomes a shelf life problem for the product. But technically, it's not illegal. Because of the pH of apple cider, it's actually a product that, according to the food code does not legally have to be held under refrigeration. But I guess my recommendation would be, when possible, that should be done, it should be held under refrigeration, because it really becomes a shelf life issue for the product. It'll start fermenting quite quickly.

Landen Tetil:

So yeah, so I guess a little piece of advice that I'm hearing when you're saying this, is if you are at a retail establishment and you see this, grab some cider out of the cooler and not off of the table. So you know, it's fall, which is typically the visiting time that farms experience. This is the huge boom time for agritourism and inviting people out on onto farms and, you know, doing the corn mazes and seeing the apple cider being pressed and picking your own pumpkins and things like that. And agritourism is a great thing. It can be very profitable for farms. And when done well, I think it can be a huge success. Potential food safety risks that could occur with inviting people who are not workers or people intimate with your farm practices onto your farm is that they just don't know what is off limits versus what is available to them. And so farms that practice in inviting people onto their farms, I think it's really important to have really good effective, clear signage. And so if you only want your customers at your farm stand making sure that they are aware that this is the place where they are welcome, but entering the apple orchards is not a place for them. And the reason for that is that the more people you have interacting with your produce, or with your fields or with things that touch your produce, any food contact surfaces, the more risk there is for contamination. And so having good visitor signage, and also having employees, either yourself as a farm owner, or employees of the farm present to sort of, you know, herd these tourists around to the appropriate places and making sure that there's no wanderers going places they shouldn't be touching things, they shouldn't be sneezing on things they should not be sneezing on, things like that. So just trying to control any possible contamination from this influx of people on your farm.

Les Bourquin:

One other thing I would mention, just along the agritourism angle, is that a lot of these these producers will also have other things for their customers to do when they visit the cider mills. So, particularly if they have things like petting zoos or something like that, where people are interacting with animals, I would really reinforce that they have handwashing facilities available because there have been a number of outbreaks actually associated with close contact with animals, particularly people who, you know, grew up in the city may not have had those types of exposures previously, and we've had several outbreaks just leaked to petting zoos, kind of associated with ag tourism. So, something else to think about.

Landen Tetil:

Yes, thank you so much for bringing that up. And yeah, I would actually recommend so, a bathroom is required for farm visitors to have access to. That is actually something that a farm is required to provide. If a petting zoo is also present, I would really recommend having a hand washing station, a portable hand washing station, right there next to the petting zoo in addition to a hand washing station with the bathrooms, just to make it even easier because the easier it is to wash their hands, the more likely it is that they'll do it.

Alison Work:

Links to anything referenced in this episode are provided in our show notes which can be accessed on the website at canr.msu.edu/agrifood_safety. Thank you to everyone for listening, and don't forget to tune in next month for another episode of our produce bites podcast