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Pundit’s Mailbag — NY Apple Fights
To Protect Healthy Reputation

I wanted to bring to your attention that New York recently enacted first-of-its-kind legislation that requires all cider produced in the state to obtain a 5 log reduction of harmful pathogens.

To our knowledge New York is the only state that has this law.

As a result of the E. coli outbreak linked to Odwalla cider that took the life of a 3-year-old child, the FDA since the late 1990s has required all cider sold wholesale to be treated (pasteurized or ultraviolet light).

The New York law removes the exclusion granted to cider producers that sell directly to consumers. As an industry, we believe this proactive action will help safeguard New York apple growers against an industry-damaging crisis linked to raw cider.

The law did not come easily, and although the vast majority supports it, it has met with strong opposition from a segment that opposes treatment and being mandated to treat. New York State Farm Bureau policy does not support the law.

Unlike the fresh produce industry, the cider industry has a “kill step” available to eliminate the risk of E. coli. Compared to the cost of loss of business and the liabilities of an outbreak, treating cider is not only affordable, but it is relatively easy and harmless to the product.

The law was passed in July 2005 and was slated to take effect in January 2006, but was delayed one year to allow producers to purchase equipment. It finally went into effect on January 8, 2007.

From 1999 until the law took effect, raw cider could be sold directly to consumers, but had to be labeled with a warning statement to inform them of the risks. The apple industry has invested a great deal of money over the years to let consumers know the health benefits of apples. We did not believe that placing warning label on cider was sending a healthy message to customers, especially moms, about raw cider’s potential risks to children.

— Jim Allen
New York Apple Association
Fishers, New York

Many thanks to Jim Allen for passing along this info. It speaks to several important issues:

First, the New York Apple board and executive staff deserve serious kudos for using this time without a crisis to think comprehensively about both the reputational threat posed by warning labels on cider to the fresh apple industry and the actual threat of an outbreak. We need more preemptive thinking across all items.

National produce trade associations that represent the whole supply chain should take special notice of the opposition of the New York State Farm Bureau. There was an outbreak in October 2004 in Peru, N.Y. that sickened several hundred people, hospitalized 14 and caused permanent kidney damage to one. It was traced to the consumption of unpasteurized cider. If it had happened in New York City and not in the middle of a presidential campaign, it would have been on every TV station in the country. The New York State Farm Bureau has made some noise about the link to the apple cider not being proven, but the real reason for its opposition is that small producers would find it difficult to justify buying pasteurization equipment. So the law could force small farmers out of the cider business. Thus the NYSFB policy urges exemptions for those who produce less than 15,000 gallons a year.

Even if the claim that it will drive farmers out of business is true, it shows that we can’t count on Farm Bureaus around the country to make the right decisions for food safety. We can expect them to defend the interests of their membership — which is not the same thing.

Farm Bureaus are enormously influential around the country. The fact that the New York Apple Association was able to withstand the power of such a group indicates there was some pretty tough fighting and some pretty shrewd politicking by NY State Apple Association, its members and executives.

Expect more efforts to exempt small producers from food safety requirements. The myth is building that one can’t get sick from products sold at a farmers’ market.

Note that labeling can draw attention to food safety issues, and that one needs to be concerned with related products as they can impact consumer perception on any particular item.

Food safety rules simply cannot be solely national. There are so many local battles. The New York State Apple Association is well established and reasonably financed and has a professional staff. We need to be thinking as an industry of how we can help state- and commodity-specific groups that are not so fortunate.

Jim Allen believes New York State is the only state with this law. Cider is made in a lot of states by small producers who sell directly to the public. Sounds like we need a federal effort to remove the exemption from the law and impose the New York standard nationally.

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