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August 24, 2007

Riskier Than Raw?

almonds on tree

From now until early October, more than half of the world’s almond crop will rain down onto the dry soils of California’s Central Valley. It’s harvest time, and almond orchards are literally quaking as large machines called “shakers” clamp the trees’ trunks and jiggle them until the mature nuts fall from their branches. This year, the California almond harvest is expected to exceed a billion pounds.

After a decision by the United States Department of Agriculture this week, some almond farmers are shaking, too. On Tuesday, the government rejected a request from the California Almond Board to delay the enactment of a “food safety” rule (which will begin September 1) requiring sterilization of all raw almonds for sale in the United States. The rule was proposed by the Almond Board itself, in response to two outbreaks of Salmonella in raw almonds, one in 2001 and another in 2004. In early August, however, the Board requested an extension, saying that growers and handlers were unprepared to begin sterilizing in September. While the Almond Board still stands behind the plan, many almond growers, consumers, and others oppose the regulations altogether.

almondsThe Cornucopia Institute, a Wisconsin-based nonprofit organization, is leading a campaign against the rule, which they say is “drastic and premature” and “ignores the underlying systemic problems with conventional agriculture that cause food contamination.” Ironically, one of the concerns many people have about the program is just the problem it seeks to address: food safety. An article in Wednesday’s San Francisco Chronicle explains why:

The most common method of sterilizing almonds is propylene oxide fumigation, using a chemical compound that is classified by the Environmental Protection Agency as a probable human carcinogen and that was briefly used as a racing fuel that added oxygen molecules to gasoline… The National Hot Rod association put a stop to that in 1993 because of propylene oxide’s association with cancer, according to a spokeswoman.

The Cornucopia Institute also says that the program will place an extra burden on the small-scale organic farmers whose almonds were never associated with the Salmonella outbreaks in the first place. Since the chemical treatment cannot be used under organic guidelines, the only currently viable option for organic farmers is to steam treat their almonds at a temperature of 158 F; however, the pasteurization equipment is prohibitively expensive for small growers, like Stan and Leslie Barth of Capay Canyon Ranch. Any almonds the Barths intend to sell raw (with some exceptions) will have to be sent to Denair for pasteurization after they are hulled and shelled. This will cost five to seven cents per pound, a price that Leslie Barth says will have to be passed on to consumers.

Another concern about the new rule is that steam-pasteurized and fumigated almonds will be sold as raw. Though the steam-treated almonds will still be “living” foods (the almonds will sprout), some almond eaters believe that labeling pasteurized almonds as raw is misleading. On the bright side, unpasteurized raw almonds can still be sold at farmers’ markets and farm stands due to an exemption.

The new almond regulations pose many questions. Can our food safety problems be addressed by preventing contamination, rather than requiring sterilization of all almonds? Is this rule the beginning of a trend toward sterilizing other raw crops?

To learn more and find out how to take action, visit the Cornucopia Institute’s website >

About CUESA

CUESA (Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture) is dedicated to growing thriving communities through the power and joy of local food. Learn More »