Foodborne illness can come from just about anywhere. It can even be caused by a drink as seemingly wholesome as fresh-squeezed apple cider. Typically, the microbes involved are the usual suspects: Salmonella and Cryptosporidium, but on rare occasion the dreaded E. coli 0157:H7 rears its ugly head, and that can cause rapid serious illness and even death if consumed by young children or people with weak immune systems. In 1996 there were three E. coli outbreaks related to cider in the US, involving some 91 people. Fortunately, there were no deaths.
The infections came as a big surprise to the commercial food and drink industries, since it had been widely assumed up until then that dangerous microbes couldn’t survive in solutions as acidic as apple juice. Yet studies have since shown that some pathenogenic bacteria can survive, at least for brief periods, in an environment with a pH as low as 2.0 (which is quite acidic, about on par with lemon juice).
But then how do these microbes get into apple juice in the first place? Salmonella and E.Coli don’t occur naturally in fruit after all, they’re typically only found in animals. The answer is that many cider makers, especially smaller operations, use fallen fruit for reasons that should be obvious from the below posts. And any apple that’s on the ground can potentially come into contact with animal droppings, especially if the apple tree in question happens to be in a cow pasture. Not a pleasant thought, but there it is. Pasteurization will destroy all of these dangerous bugs, though as I’ve mentioned previously, it does change the flavor.
The additional step of fermentation, as I mentioned in the posts on hard cider, kills of pretty much everything, though nobody knew why hard drinks prevented disease back in the days before pasteurization. No wonder bakers and vintners of old, lacking any clue as to how microbes worked, simply referred to fermentation as “God is good”.
To pasteurize locally purchased cider at home, simply put it in a pot and heat it to 185 degrees Fahrenheit. Try not to boil it, since the pectins will tend to clump up and sink to the bottom.