Pulp friction: Uncle Sam threatens to stop the presses

Why some cider lovers feel squeezed

PHOTOS BY JEN FARIELLO JEN@READTHEHOOK.COM

Leon Sheets didn't plan on leaving the apple industry. "I was born into it," says Sheets, who operates a cider press in Augusta County. "My father started our press 75 years ago."

In its heyday, the family press produced over 80,000 gallons of cider a year, Sheets says, but as big apple-processing firms have snapped up much of the best fruit, annual production has slipped to just 10,000 gallons.

In the end, however, it wasn't corporate America that dealt the final blow to his operations. An inspector recently informed Sheets that FDA rules, enacted in the wake of a horrific out-of-state E. coli outbreak, could cost bottlers– even tiny ones like the Sheets family mill– $14,000 for new equipment. The days of wholesaling fresh untreated cider end in January.

"So we decided this would be our last year," says Sheets. "We who play by the rules have been punished."

"It's overkill," says Charlotte Shelton, whose family operates several hand-cranked apple presses in North Garden. "The cider made with good sanitary practices is perfectly safe."

 

More fun than making wine

 It's a glorious fall day on Apple Cider Road in Mt. Sidney. A tiny hamlet just past Fort Defiance, Mt. Sidney is the kind of place where, if you pull into the wrong driveway (as a reporter did), you may be greeted with a smile and cordially informed that the cider mill lies "just right over there– it's in hollerin' distance."

"I like the tart stuff," says Catherine Strickler, who first discovered Sheets Cider Mill 23 years ago when she was being courted by a Mt. Sidney boy. Now married and living in Harrisonburg, she has returned with her children– and her camera– after hearing the mill was closing.

"I'm going to take some pictures," says Strickler. "This is such a shame."


"I like the tart stuff," says Catherine Strickler.

 With no orchard of its own, the Sheets family has plied its cider trade by buying apples from independent orchards and by letting small growers bring their own apples. It's also one of the last places that opens its press to folks like Brett Wilson.

A general contractor living in Keswick, Wilson journeys over Afton Mountain to the historic mill each fall. This is his final trip, and Wilson is feeling stung– and not just by that yellow jacket that got him on the hand as he boxed apples earlier in the day.

"Damn bureaucrats," says Wilson.

"It's a sad day," he says, as the fruit for his 2003 vintage tumbles from a hopper onto a conveyor belt. Less than an hour later, he'll be filling a borrowed van with gallon jugs containing one of Virginia's most celebrated products.


"We who follow the rules have been punished," says Leon Sheets.

  "I'd much rather make cider than wine," says Wilson, as he unloads four apple varieties (along with two kinds of pears). "It's so interesting."

But, if the rules aren't followed, it can also be dangerous.

Until recently, it was common practice to make cider from already-fallen apples, which industry insiders call "drops." After all, why waste food? What the industry now knows is that drops, if they land on animal feces, can pick up pathogens such as the E. coli bacteria. Sheets says no drops are allowed at the Sheets Cider Mill.

"They do it clean; they do it right," says Strickler. She says her children, now ages 4 and 6, have been drinking cider from the Sheets Cider Mill since they were six months old.

However, some microbiologists and lawyers might not endorse the practice; they could point to a massive outbreak that killed a toddler in Colorado and sickened 66 others.

 

Rumors are ripe

 Talk to Virginia apple pressers, and you hear a lot of rumors about how the infamous E. coli contamination occurred:

"It was an orchard where they let the migrant workers change their babies' diapers in the apple carts."

"I heard they were transporting apples in a manure spreader."

A more likely story is less dramatic: drops and deer feces. But, in fact, the source of the E. coli outbreak was never pinpointed.

"Nobody knows," says Susan Barr, a spokesperson for Odwalla, the beverage line implicated in that incident. What is known is that Odwalla was actually out in front of the industry in one way: its contracts with suppliers demanded no drops.

Odwalla and others in the industry assumed– wrongly, as it turned out– that bacteria-killing treatments weren't necessary.

"It was thought that fruit juices– and particularly apple juice," says Barr, "were acidic enough that they didn't have to be treated."

That was before most people heard about E. coli 0157:H7.

 

The Odwalla outbreak

 Mention E. coli, and many think of the decade-ago incident at some Jack in the Box restaurants. The 1993 outbreak in Washington state injured over 500 people, killed four children, and pretty much put an end to the idea of "rare" or "medium rare" burgers at fast-food restaurants.

After the outbreak, microbiologists pinpointed the cause as a virulent strain of E. coli called 0157:H7. As a result, the U.S. Department of Agriculture began recommending cooking meat to an internal temperature of 160 degrees to kill the pathogen.

Since Upton Sinclair's 1906 muck-raking The Jungle, there has been no shortage of publicity about the dangers of improperly handled meat. But this killer bacteria was about to stun another industry.

Odwalla was sort of the Ben & Jerry's of the juice business. Its name was based on a song about a mythical leader named Odwalla who led the "people of the sun" out of the "gray haze" of industrial society. With a single hand-cranked juicer, the three musicians who founded the company in Santa Cruz, California, began selling juices in 1980. In keeping with their emphasis on natural ingredients and freshness, none of their products were pasteurized. That fresh approach would have deadly consequences.

According to company documents, Odwalla learned of the outbreak around noon on October 30, 1996. Four hours later, it recalled all the company's apple products and began pulling them from 4,600 locations in seven states.

Fast as it acted, the company was too late for Anna Gimmestad. The 16-month-old girl from Greeley, Colorado, was already on life support systems. On November 8, 1996, she died.

 

The historic mill

 The backbone of the Sheets mill is a modified hydraulic press that Leon Sheets' father purchased from a going-out-of-business Staunton tire shop in 1928. Thanks to an electric motor turning a fabric belt, the historic gizmo hums with two long hydraulic arms. Built to remove stiff rubber tires from the automobile wheels of the day, the industrial-strength machine is squeezing a stack of ground apples at the rate of about four inches per minute.

"The press is the secret to our cider– the pressure and the speed," says Sheets. "If it goes too fast, it clouds the cider."


Brett Wilson borrowed the C&O restaurant van to make his run for the cider.

 Harold Morris, a state trooper now living in Prince William, came down to assist in the day's pressing– as a volunteer and friend of the family. "I just do it because I like it," says Morris as he folds burlap sheets– they act as a filter of sorts– around ground-up apples. Maplewood racks separate each layer of chopped apples. When the pressing is over, the depleted pulp– called pomace– will be shoveled into the back of a truck and carted to a nearby cattle yard for feed.


Maplewood racks separate the layers of ground apples during a pressing.

 While Sheets Cider Mill is worthy of picture books, it seems destined for history books. And it isn't the only family business folding this year. An orchard in White Hall will soon uproot its apple trees and leave several area grocers searching for a new supplier.

 

No more Maupin's

 Foods of All Nations, the gourmet grocery store on Ivy Road, sells about 36 half-gallon jugs of fresh-from-the-press cider each week during fall, says manager Rob Stokes. When the leaves start turning, even a pasteurized brand he carries sees a sales spike.

"People just equate fall with apple cider," says Stokes. "It's one of those seasonal things."

But Foods of all Nations, Integral Yoga Natural Foods, Rebecca's Natural Foods, and other area stores will have to find a new supplier next year. Maupin's Orchard Pure Apple Cider is leaving the shelves.


Dan Maupin's cider has been a fall favorite. This is its last year on local shelves.

 Rebecca's buyer Bill Calvani will be sad to lose the product, but he's glad the FDA is "trying to keep us safe." Fresh cider sales typically were just eight gallons per week.

Although he says the regulations hastened the end of his cider-making career, orchard owner Dan Maupin seems almost relieved.

"I'm not getting any younger," says the 78-year-old Maupin. "I'm just not an age to fight it too hard."

Furthermore, says Maupin, his 30- to 35-year-old dwarf apple trees are nearing the end of their life cycle, and his wife has long been urging him to push up his trees and use the land for hay and cattle.

"I've got a good excuse now," says Maupin. "It was a nice business, and I've enjoyed it, but all good things must come to an end."

 

Russ Simpson says it's safe now

 "A lot of people stopped buying after the girl died," says Russ Simpson, the owner of The Apple Shed, along Route 29 in Nelson County. Simpson says big grocery chains abandoned fresh cider "like rats jumping off a ship."

While that created opportunity for roadside purveyors such as Simpson, it also created a lot of nervous customers.

"It's misguided anxiety," says Simpson. "To me it's a lot safer to drink cider than to eat from a buffet. I've been drinking cider since I was six years old– 40-plus years."

"There are certain people who are paranoid," says Simpson. "There are people who have anxiety about eating anything raw. If you're nervous, then don't buy cider."

Simpson says Anna Gimmestad's death quickly ended the practice of using dropped apples and that his cider– he buys it from a small orchard press in the Shenandoah Valley– comes from top grade stock. "They're the same apples as you'd find at Giant or your Piggly-Wiggly," says Simpson.

"The one thing all this did was make safer cider," says Simpson. "You're more likely to die getting out of my parking lot than drinking cider."

(Simpson knows plenty about that; in 1997, he was nearly flattened when an out-of-control tractor-trailer– its driver dead or dying from a heart attack– crashed into the woods beside his stand.)

 

The art of the apple

 Morris Orchard in Amherst County has held off shelling out for an expensive treatment device– but it'll soon have to if it wants to be in business next year.

"What that means is cider's gonna go up about 50 cents a gallon," says owner Scott Barnes. "The consumer ultimately pays for the government regulation."

Yet higher prices and safety aren't the only threats to cider's reputation. "Cider's gotten kind of a bad name," says Barnes, blaming some cider makers for using rotten apples and– egad– the Red Delicious variety.

Apple historians point to an 1868 discovery in an Iowa orchard as the genesis of what would become America's #1 eating apple. Its height and the bumps, or points, at its base may be visually appealing; but for cider lovers, only the first part of the Red Delicious name is accurate.

"They look nice," says White House Apple Juice spokesperson Herb Glass, "but they're big, red, and mealy."

Historically, cider making has been an art. But some lazy 20th century cider makers are ruining the beverage's reputation among potential consumers, says Lynchburg-based fruit tree consultant Tom Burford.

He depicts a typical scenario of a family stopping at a roadside stand: "Too many kids would say, 'This is awful– pass the Pepsi.' But once they taste good cider," Burford says, "they're sold."

A former orchard owner, Burford now helps private estates and institutions, including Monticello and two Kluge farms, Morven and Albemarle Farm, plant orchards. He says the mid-Atlantic's top three cider varieties have historically been the Winesap, the Virginia Hewes Crab, and the Albemarle-Newtown Pippin.

The Pippin probably came to Albemarle in 1755– thanks to a celebrity of the era, Castle Hill owner Thomas Walker. In 1838, another celebrity, Queen Victoria, received a gift of some Albemarle Pippins, which created a "sensation" in England. Now another celebrity has set his sights on the Albemarle Pippin.

Burford is helping rock star Dave Matthews grow "strictly cider" Albemarle Pippins at one of his Scottsville-area farms. "He's very concerned for the environment," says Burford, noting that Dave's young trees hail from a certified organic nursery.

Burford, who is active in the Slow Food movement, a recent trend that emphasizes regional delicacies, wants even people without a rock star's bank account to be able to enjoy quality cider. He says helping artisanal growers afford to stay in business is why he has fought the new government rules. Burford says he's "been in the halls of Congress and in the legislatures yelling and screaming." To no avail.

"The chicken has become nuggets," says Burford, "and the apple has become that huge red thing with points."

 

Suing the way to safety

"Who in hell is selling unpasteurized juice?" asks Seattle attorney Bill Marler. "It is really, really, really risky behavior– that's the bottom line."

While the parents of little Anna Gimmestad never sued, others sickened and injured in the 1996 Odwalla outbreak did. Marler won a settlement worth $12-15 million, according to media accounts, for five of the most seriously injured victims.

Bound by a confidentiality clause, Marler will neither confirm nor deny the amount, but in a moment of levity, this veteran trial lawyer calls unpasteurized beverages "the Bill Marler full-employment act."

"Pasteurization," says Marler, "has been around since– what's that guy's name– Louis Pasteur?"

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the E. coli strain implicated in the Jack in the Box and Odwalla disasters, strain 0157:H7, produces a toxin that damages the inside of intestines. For adults, that typically means 10 days of bloody diarrhea, severe stomach cramps, nausea, vomiting, and fever.

However, for children younger than five as well as the elderly, the CDC says, kidney disease may strike. "There's no treatment," according to the CDC, and the effects include high blood pressure, seizures, blindness, paralysis– and death.

"I've been in too many ICU wards," says Marler, who says he's seen victims lose their intestines, their kidneys, and their reproductive systems. He tells the story of one 14-year-old girl who began suffering hideous side-effects from her kidney-saving treatment: a puffy "moon" face, a preponderance of body hair, and a fatty growth on her neck called a "buffalo hump."

"How many dates is that girl going to get?" asks Marler. So she stopped taking her medicine, and, Marler says, consequently lost a kidney.

"If you're 21 to 45, drink all you want," says Marler. "You're probably not going to die. But I think it should be illegal to sell unpasteurized juice to children under two and adults over 70."

Besides winning millions for the victims, Marler has stood over hospital beds dealing with frightened parents and innocent children with symptoms ranging from anal bleeding to brain damage. "Some of these kids have $200,000 medical bills, and they're gonna face multiple kidney transplants," he says.

The CDC reports that E. coli is found widely in animals feces, and therefore on farms and feedlots.

"I grew up on a farm," says Marler. "I belonged to 4-H. I used to take my rabbits and turkeys to the county fair. What happens at county fairs is the same as what happens at feedlots."

What next? Would Marler actually sue a fair?

He already has. In January, on behalf of over 20 children allegedly sickened at a petting zoo, Marler filed suit against Lane County Fair in Oregon.

"I understand the whole Americana thing," says Marler, "but these are exceedingly nasty bugs. We can't just dream it's the fifties. We can wish there were no Osama bin Laden, but there is. So we adjust our behavior."

 

FDA action

Marler's lawsuit wasn't the end of Odwalla's troubles. In 1998, after pleading guilty to 16 misdemeanors in the case, the company was slapped with a $1.5 million fine, the second largest levied by the Food and Drug Administration in an adulterated food case. (Coincidentally, the largest also involved apples... almost. In 1987, baby food-maker Beech Nut was hit with a $2 million fine for selling fake apple juice.)

Odwalla accepted responsibility for Gimmestad's death and the 66 injuries. It quickly embraced "flash" pasteurization, as well as a three-bath washing process, and reintroduced its apple products.

While small cider makers were coming to accept that eliminating "drops" would prevent contamination, there was clamor for regulation. Orchards and pressers began arguing for internal reform, but there was evidence– ten months after the outbreak– that drops were still an integral part of cider making.

In August, 1997, the FDA sent teams in 32 state to inspect 237 cider-making facilities and found that 37 percent were still using drops. While noting a 10 percent lower drop use than an industry study the previous year, the FDA found some cider samples contained low levels of salmonella and E. coli– although not the deadly 0157:H7 strain that killed Anna Gimmestad.

Long before issuing its final report on its inspections, the FDA asked cider makers to voluntarily add warning labels to their products and began working toward regulations: Fruit beverage providers would have to reduce pathogens 100,000-fold.

At the time, practically the only way that could be done was with pasteurization. The industry shuddered. Not only do pasteurizing units typically cost over $20,000, they have an uncanny ability to remove nutrients and the main thing prized by cider fans: the taste.

"There is no such thing as pasteurized cider," says Carter Mountain Orchard co-owner Ruth Chiles. "If you pasteurize it, it becomes apple juice."

 

The tiny industry

With the crucial taste issue at stake, one might suspect an outcry from aficionados, but response to the impending rules was anything but deafening. Although cider may seem like a huge Virginia product, it's actually so small that even the Virginia Agricultural Statistics Service doesn't measure production. Nor does the fruit's top lobbying group, U.S. Apple.

"It's a difficult thing to track," says U.S. Apple spokesperson Patricia Henderson. "You're dealing with a lot of independent marketers and farm markets."

Scott Barnes' Morris Orchard in Amherst County retails up to 350 gallons a week at the store and up to 1,800 gallons per week to wholesale customers in a 100-mile stretch from Roanoke to North Garden– up to 25,000 gallons a year.

"I bet there's less than 10 of us in the state," says Barnes, referring to independent cider pressers.

If Barnes' operation is typical, untreated Virginia cider appears to generate less than $1 million in annual sales.

Even Virginia's ranking as America's #6 apple producer may be misleading. "We're a long ways from #1," says Dave Robishaw, a state employee who– from his office in the Forestry Building in UVA's Fontaine Research Park– assists Virginia's apple industry because the private association has no staff of its own.

"They used to have an executive director, but they don't now," says Robishaw.

Any tiny whimpers cider mills could muster didn't derail regulations that seemed destined to strip cider of its distinctive taste. But a pair of unlikely heroes was about to emerge from upstate New York.

 

Saved by the quartz

Cornell University microbiologist Randy Worobo remembers the day an engineer named Phil Harman came into his office with an idea for purifying cider with ultraviolet rays: "I told him that we'd already tried it, and unless he could create a thin band, it wouldn't work. He said he could."


Microbiologist Randy Worobo poses with an early ultraviolet prototype.

PHOTO BY CORNELL

Long prized for purifying clear water, ultraviolet rays were thought no match for the sweet murky haze of cider. But Harman indeed created a thin band– 1/30,000th of an inch– out of quartz and stainless steel. By the time he added specialized fluorescent light tubes, a variable speed motor, various fail-safe devices, and an internal computer to monitor each batch, the price had climbed to $14,000 for the cheapest model of the machine, dubbed the CiderSure.

That's still a "tremendous value," says Warren Miller, owner of an 1811 water-powered cider mill near Buffalo, New York. He also owns a CiderSure.

"It's an absolute godsend to the industry in general and certainly to our business," says Miller. "It's just a hands-down winner when you compare it to thermal pasteurizers."

"I know it sounds kind of funky, putting it through the light," says Nelson County seller Simpson, "but it doesn't change the taste."

Now, Harman– who is a paraplegic– has quit his job, invested his life savings, and spends all of his time making sure the CiderSure machines are working, according to Worobo. In early November, Harman was hard to track down, as he was driving from his home in upstate New York to Washington State to fix a malfunctioning machine.

"He's just extremely dedicated," says Worobo.

 

The rules of the day

Lucky for taste purists, the invention of the CiderSure came in time to meet the FDA's January 18, 2001 rule: Wholesale fruit beverage providers had to reduce pathogens 100,000-fold.

Juice bars are exempt. So are orchards that press on-site and sell directly to consumers.

That means that firms that press from their own apples can still sell untreated cider from their own roadside stands, over the Internet, and at farmers' markets. They will, however, have to place warning labels on all untreated beverages.

The edict gave very small companies like Sheets Cider Mill until January 20, 2004 to begin treating its cider. And that isn't going to happen.

As for Anna Gimmestad, Odwalla dedicated a new park in downtown Greeley in her memory. Her parents never sued the company. And like Tylenol and Jack in the Box before it, Odwalla survived. A dip in sales followed the outbreak, but Odwalla sales have since climbed significantly, reports spokesperson Barr.

So thorough was the rebound that after acquiring the Fresh Samantha line of drinks, Odwalla might have– like First Union buying Wachovia– taken the smaller company's untarnished brand. It didn't. Fresh Samantha disappeared into Odwalla.

Then, two years ago, in what stands as yet another endorsement of its clean-up, Odwalla was purchased by the Coca-Cola company, and the Odwalla name continues to grace a line of its pasteurized juices, smoothies, and energy drinks.

As for Virginia apple growers, they're stuck with high costs while being buffeted by cheap Chinese imports that have made apples a "commodity," says state industry helper Dave Robishaw.

Robishaw says Virginia fruit farmers must clear the land and let it lie fallow for a year. Then they have to plant, prune, spray, and wait a few more years before a tree bears fruit. When the weather acts up, the most lucrative market– fresh apples– disappears.

"A hail, a drought, or even a windstorm can scar the apples," says Robishaw, "and then they end up going to be processed for a fraction of the value. As the people who produce them get older, and it gets more expensive, they say, 'The heck with it.'"


The thing that gave Cider Mill Road its name.

Leon Sheets, 63, recently lost his long-time Valley apple supplier to a contract with a big juice maker. Now he's losing Dan Maupin, the White Hall orchardist who is uprooting his trees.

As for his historic press, Sheets says that a state senator is trying to relocate it to a museum since his family farm has been sold. "Farming is not a good business to be in," says Sheets. "The only thing a farmer can raise to make money is houses."


Leon Sheets hoses down burlap sheets.

PHOTOS BY JEN FARIELLO

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