ELLSWORTH — An Ellsworth man became Michigan’s first felony “food law” conviction after he sold E. coli-tainted cider that sickened four people.
James Willard Ruster, 52, sold cider from his Mitchell Hill Farm at local farmers markets without a license and in defiance of multiple warnings from state health inspectors. In 2012, four people, including two children, fell ill from an E. coli outbreak traced to Ruster’s cider.
Jennifer Holton, a spokeswoman for the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, said Ruster’s “blatant disregard” for food safety led authorities to pursue criminal charges under Michigan’s Food Law. Ruster eventually pleaded guilty and became the law’s first felony conviction since its enactment in 2000.
“I think it really shows some very willful misbranding of food products that resulted in people getting sick,” Holton said.
Thirteenth Circuit Court Judge Philip Rodgers on Feb. 18 sentenced Ruster to a 14- to 48-month prison term, with an injunction that he never produce cider again. Ruster’s attorney Edward Engstrom, of Charlevoix, declined to comment.
Court documents detail warnings Ruster received in 2011 after MDARD inspectors visited his Toad Lake Road farm and found the shack in which he made cider didn’t meet the law’s safe production standards. Holton said Ruster held a license as a maple syrup producer but not for cider.
The next year, four people tested positive for E. coli after being hospitalized with abdominal pain, diarrhea and bloody diarrhea. All the patients had consumed Ruster’s cider, and inspectors executed a search warrant on his property.
“The apple cider production equipment was unsanitary and was found to have dried food and dried food residue,” the document states.
Inspectors conducted tests on five containers of Ruster’s cider and found four tested positive for E. coli, as did containers provided by two of the ill patients, according to court documents.
The Antrim County prosecutor’s office authorized two felony “food law” violations against Ruster about a year after the E. coli outbreak. Ruster pleaded guilty to one charge of willful misbranding and adulteration of food products.
Neal Fortin, director of Michigan State University’s Institute for Food Laws and Regulations, helped write the food law. He’s not surprised it’s taken 14 years for its first felony conviction.
“It was expected to be rare. At the time, we had to convince people that even if it was rare you need it,” he said. “But if it does come up, you need to take people out of the food supply.”
Holton said Ruster’s case shouldn’t reflect on apple cider producers who are licensed and follow “good manufacturing practices.” MDARD officials haven’t traced food-borne illness outbreaks to other cider producers.
John Kilcherman of Christmas Cove Farms in Northport takes pride in selling unpasteurized cider, a product he’s crafted for 25 years. He believes customers appreciate it, too.
“They’d rather have it than pasteurized,” he said.
Kilcherman works hard to make sure his cedar is delicious and safe. He said he attended a special “cider school” five years ago for a state license to sell cider. This year, he’s sending his grandson to the class and updating his facilities.
Fortin doesn’t see Ruster’s case having a big impact on the majority of small farm cider producers. But he said it’d be a “deterrent” against those who may consciously or recklessly endanger the public through poor food safety practices.
“For the small minority, it may be a warning sign that they need to pay more attention,” he said.