A Maryland orchard whose apple cider has been associated with an outbreak of E. coli announced last week that it may change the way it processes its product.

A news report in the Carroll County Times suggested that Baugher’s Orchard and Farm in Westminister may pasteurize next season’s cider.

Last October, an epidemiological investigation by the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene revealed a potential association between Baugher’s unpasteurized cider and seven E. coli  O157:H7 infections. Three of the people sickened in the outbreak were hospitalized and five of the cases were children under 18.

Consumption of unpasteurized cider was believed to be the link, but microbiological sampling at the farm did not corroborate the finding of the epidemiological studies. The newspaper reported that the health department was unable to test the batch of cider suspected of being contaminated.

Without confirmation of the cause of the cluster of E. coli infections in Maryland, “There’s no way of knowing if we had anything to do with it,” Dwight Baugher, the farm manager, told the newspaper.

Epidemiological studies can not prove causation, but they can demonstrate that a risk factor is correlated with a high incidence of disease in a population exposed to that risk–such as patients infected with identical strains of E. coli who report drinking apple cider from the same farm.

That commonality led Maryland health authorities to issue a warning about a potential risk  associated with Baugher’s cider on Nov. 4, 2010. Baugher’s Orchard and Farm then recalled all its cider.

E. coli O157:H7  infections are the result of fecal contamination in food. In many of the E. coli outbreaks involving unpasteurized cider, the problem was traced back to apples harvested from the ground that had come into contact with animal feces.

After a California girl died from drinking unpasteurized juice contaminated with E. coli in 1996, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued guidelines to help producers keep their fruit and vegetable juices free of dangerous bacteria. The guidelines call for what the FDA says are proven safety methods, including Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) controls and heat pasteurization.

Grocery stores, health food stores, cider mills, and farm markets that sell untreated, packaged juice made on site must keep the product refrigerated and are required to label it:  “WARNING: This product has not been pasteurized and therefore may contain harmful bacteria that can cause serious illness in children, the elderly, and persons with weakened immune systems.”

But the FDA does not require warning labels for juice or cider that is fresh-squeezed and sold by the glass at orchards, farm markets, roadside stands, or in some restaurants or juice bars.  The agency recommends that consumers should ask whether such cider or apple juice has been treated.

Although the headline in the Carroll County Times stated that the Baugher farm will pasteurize its cider in the future, the story was somewhat more equivocal, quoting Baugher as saying cider production would resume but “how is not really determined.”

A lawsuit against Baugher’s Orchard and Farm has been filed on behalf of a Baltimore resident, Nicholas Fickel, who became ill after drinking cider at the farm. The lawsuit was filed by the Maryland-based Ward and Klein Law Office and Seattle food safety law firm, Marler Clark, sponsor of Food Safety News.  Fickel, through his attorneys, said he wanted to raise awareness of the dangers in consuming unpasteurized cider.