Natural Foods Merchandiser

Almonds must be pasteurized, says new USDA rule

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has issued a new rule requiring almonds produced in California to be pasteurized, including those sold raw. Almond handlers were required to submit pasteurization treatment plans for their 2007-08 crop last month, and mandatory compliance with the rule begins Sept. 1.

The mandate is the result of an action plan created by the Almond Board of California, which promotes California's almond industry through a federal marketing order and also funds food safety initiatives. The ABC created this plan, essentially a set of proposed rules, in response to almond-related salmonella outbreaks in 2001 and 2004. They were adopted by the USDA March 30.

"After the second incident of salmonella was traced back to three of California's almond orchards, an outbreak that impacted several hundred people and resulted in one death, the industry felt compelled—morally and ethically—to present a healthy and safe product," said Marsha Venable, a spokeswoman for the ABC.

Sacramento, Calif.-based Blue Diamond Growers, the largest tree-nut processing and marketing company in the world, with almonds making up the bulk of its production, fully supports the new pasteurization rule, said Susan Brauner, director of public affairs for the company. "We pasteurize all raw almonds for human consumption because we feel it's in the best food-safety interest of our consumers."

Blue Diamond Growers uses a propylene oxide treatment, a chemical pasteurization process. Organic growers will use a heat treatment that douses almond skins with short bursts of steam to kill bacteria, Venable said. "The heat doesn't penetrate into the almond, and its nutrition is not impeded or altered."

While Venable said a majority of the almond growers in the state were in favor of the pasteurization mandate, the ruling has resulted in a backlash from some producers and handlers, who say it will be costly and misleading to consumers.

Glen Anderson, who owns a small, family-run organic raw almond farm in Hilmar, Calif., said he's concerned his customers won't want pasteurized almonds. "Most of them want product directly from the farm," he said. "They want it to be truly raw. If pasteurization is mandatory and my customers don't want it, then I lose their business." Anderson also said the new ruling might be overlooking the pest- and disease-control inherent in organic farming.

"We organic farmers build our whole system around biodiversity in the soil and the trees, and we have a production system that's based on something quite different than conventional growers," he said. "I don't think we really need to pasteurize from a production standpoint like ours."

Others, like Janabai Amsden, co-owner of Los Angeles-based raw-food retailer Euphoria Loves Rawvolution, are concerned about a pasteurized product being labeled raw.

"This [rule] is a dangerous legal precedent," Amsden said. "Pasteurized almonds that are labeled raw will be mislabeled. This is scary to me, because people should be allowed to have a choice."

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 6/p.18

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