Published on 12/02/96

How Can You Tell Apple Juice Is Safe?

Even apple juice can make you sick. What can you trust anymore?

For one thing, apple juice.

It's natural enough to feel a little wary about apple juice now. The deadly E. coli 0157:H7 bacteria were found in juice from an Odwalla plant in California. At least 50 people were infected there and in nearby states.

But it's easy to feel safe drinking apple juice, say experts with the University of Georgia Extension Service and the Georgia Department of Agriculture.

The Odwalla juice wasn't pasteurized, said Extension Service foods specialist Judy Harrison.

"Pasteurization, which is a heat treatment, kills E. coli and other disease-causing microbes," Harrison said. "It also gets rid of yeasts and molds that could cause spoilage."

On the grocery shelf, at room temperature, juices come in small, aseptic boxes and in bottles and cans, she said. They come in bottles and cartons in the refrigerator case and in frozen concentrated form in the freezer section.

Citing the National Food Processors Association, Harrison said all of the juices stored at room temperature on the shelf have been heat-treated.

"All shelf-stable juices have been heat-treated," she said. "Those are juices that don't require refrigeration before opening."

Those products are safe, she said. The juice was heat- treated, although the labels don't have to say that.

Frozen concentrates have also been heat-treated. So have the juices in refrigerated cartons or bottles that say "made from concentrate."

"The NFPA says the vast majority of juices even in the refrigerator case have been heat-treated," Harrison said.

If you're not sure about a certain product, she said, check with the retailer. And look for the 1-800 number on the label.

What about the juice that isn't heat-treated?

"Some juice products contain the preservative, sodium benzoate," Harrison said. "That has been shown to be more effective with some strains of E. coli than others and at certain levels of acidity. Sodium benzoate may limit the time E. coli can survive in cider. But it may still survive up to two weeks.

"Pasteurization is the surest way to protect the safety of fruit juices," she said.

Most of the cider in north Georgia apple houses is pasteurized, said Tommy Irvin, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Agriculture.

"Probably 90 percent of the apple cider sold in north Georgia comes from three big producers that all pasteurize their juice," he said.

Most of the rest comes from three apple houses near Ellijay. And the DOA inspects them regularly, along with other apple houses.

Each has recently been tested for E. coli, too. And each, as Irvin expected, tested clean.

"They had no cattle pastures in the orchards," he said. "And they're using only first-grade apples. They don't use cull apples. So we didn't suspect any problem."

Apple house inspections are vigorous.

"We inspect them routinely for sanitation," Irvin said. "Apples are also included in a random sampling program for pesticides as well as routine bacteriological analyses."

To be sure about a juice product at a Georgia roadside stand, he said, find out if they have a DOA license. That means they're routinely inspected.

To be perfectly safe, though, just look for one word: pasteurized. "A product that has been pasteurized provides the ultimate degree of safety," Harrison said.


Dan Rahn is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.