USDA Denies Request to Delay Almond Rule

This stinks like a dead skunk in the road. Big agriculture finds another way to bankrupt the small farmers (who can’t afford to comply). And it’s so politcally correct: "they are looking out for the consumer". If you want to see the background story, read this: I Love California Almonds, but…

Link: USDA Denies Request to Delay Almond Rule – washingtonpost.com

Almonds

A new rule requiring all California almonds to be pasteurized will go into effect Sept. 1, despite farmers’ requests to postpone the provision for six months, federal agricultural officials said.

The growers, represented by the California Almond Board, said they needed the extra time to get the necessary equipment and processes in place to avoid an interruption in the flow of nuts to market.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s decision to implement the rule stemmed from salmonella outbreaks in 2001 and 2004 that were traced to raw almonds.

Farmers’ worries about being able to meet the rule’s requirements, particularly when faced with an expected bumper crop of 1.33 billion pounds of almonds this year, were taken into consideration, but public health was the main concern, federal officials said.

"While we understand the Board’s concerns, USDA also wants to ensure that the quality and safety of almonds and almond products in the marketplace continue to improve," Robert Keeney, deputy administrator of the department’s fruit and vegetable programs, wrote in a letter to the Almond Board dated Thursday. "These goals require measures to help reduce the potential of a third salmonella outbreak linked to almonds."

Almond production in the United States has surged as the nut’s popularity increases among health-conscious consumers, and California has dominated world production. The state’s 6,000 almond farmers expect their crop to fetch $1.4 billion this year.

Followers of raw food diets and shoppers who prefer unprocessed, organic nuts protested the government’s original pasteurization decision and organized a national letter-writing campaign asking the USDA to reconsider.

The pasteurization process, also used to sterilize milk, juice and eggs, typically exposes the shelled and hulled nuts to a moist burst of steam, which heats their surface to about 200 degrees, killing any pathogens. An alternative sterilization process sends the almonds into a chamber where they’re sprayed with a gas.

The USDA advised the Almond Board that almonds may be treated by facilities with pasteurization processes that haven’t received the board’s final approval. This would ease some concerns growers had about not having adequate facilities to pasteurize the nuts in time to meet the deadline, board officials said.

"The USDA has been receptive to hearing the implementation concerns the industry has, which mostly revolved around logistics, and the USDA has pledged their assistance," said Richard Waycott, the board’s president and CEO.

Some industry representatives still opposed the move, saying there was little input from consumers, who might switch to imported raw almonds that don’t fall under the same regulations.

"The public had no opportunity to get involved in this process," said Will Fantle, research director at the Wisconsin-based farm policy group Cornucopia Institute.

I Love California Almonds, but…

Almonds

California-grown raw almonds may soon no longer be available. A new USDA mandate requires raw almonds to be sanitized through treatment processes that the industry generously describes as “pasteurization.” The rule requires “pasteurization” of almonds with a toxic fumigant or treatment with high-temperature heat.

Why is this an all or nothing ruling? Let the free market decide: farmers could specify whether or not their almonds were “pasteurized” on the packaging. This smells like influence by big agriculture and their lawyers.

The Cornucopia Institute is working with almond farmers and handlers, retailers, and farm and consumer groups for a full re-evaluation of the USDA’s plan. Click on the Save almonds campaign link for more background information and steps you can take to help out.

Link: The Cornucopia Institute » Blog Archive » USDA Plan to “Pasteurize” Almonds Has Consumers Going Nuts.

Small-scale farmers, retailers, and consumers are renewing their call to the USDA to reassess the plan to “pasteurize” all California almonds with a toxic fumigant or high-temperature sterilization process. All domestic almonds will be mandated to have the treatments by early next year. The plan was quietly developed by the USDA in response to outbreaks of Salmonella in 2001 and 2004 that were traced to raw almonds.

“The almond ‘pasteurization’ plan will have many harmful impacts on consumers and the agricultural community,” said Will Fantle, research director for The Cornucopia Institute, a Wisconsin-based farm policy research group. “Only 18 public comments from the entire U.S.—and all from the almond industry insiders—were received on the proposal. The logic behind both the necessity and safety of the treatments processes has not been fully or adequately analyzed—as well as the economic costs to small-scale growers and the loss of consumer choices.”

Last Wednesday, the California Almond Board suddenly requested that USDA delay the treatment mandate until March, 2008—it had been scheduled to take effect on September 1. “We support this request for a delay,” said Fantle, “but a delay, due to the industry being unprepared, isn’t enough. The USDA must also re-open the rule for public review and comment so that those who have been shut out of the decision-making process can have input into any almond treatment plan.”

Although foodborne illnesses have garnered headlines in recent years, including contamination of California-grown spinach and lettuce, raw produce and nuts are not inherently risky foods. Contamination occurs when livestock manure or other fecal matter is inadvertently transferred to food through contaminated water, soil, or transportation and handling equipment. Raw foods can also be infected by poor employee hygiene and sanitation practices either on the farm or in processing facilities.

“All fresh foods carry some chance of risk,” notes Bruce Lampinen, a scientist at University of California, Davis, who studies almonds, “but there is no more risk now than there was thirty years ago.”

And the fear in the farming community is that this will competitively injure smaller sustainable and organic growers. “This will put American farmers at a distinct disadvantage in the U.S. and abroad,” says organic almond farmer Mark McAfee. Fumigated almonds are banned in the EU and many other countries. McAfee worries about the impact of the rule on his business. Seventy percent of California’s crop is exported.

Some companies that use California almonds are already investigating foreign sources for their needs. After buying almonds from local producers for over 25 years, Living Tree Community Foods, a Berkeley-based natural foods supplier, will soon begin buying almonds from Italy and Spain. Dr. Jesse Schwartz, the president of the specialty retailer, believes the rule, if implemented, will be a travesty for American agriculture. “California almonds are the heritage of the American people,” he says, “they are superior in every way.”

Jason Mahon owns Premier Organics, a company that produces raw almond butter in Oakland, CA. Mahon is also looking to foreign suppliers and believes the rule is an unnecessary “fear-based decision of the Almond Board, that is clearly trying to protect itself from bad press and lawsuits.”

The equipment to meet the new USDA mandate is very expensive, ranging from $500,000 to $2,500,000. Farms can outsource the pasteurization process, but Hendrik Feenstra, a small-scale handler of organic almonds, believes that to do so will still be prohibitively expensive for small-scale growers and handlers. “Because pasteurization companies often charge a flat rate no matter the quantity of almonds, it could be four or five times more expensive for small-scale almond producers to pasteurize almonds than it will be for industrial-scale producers,” Feenstra says. And modest-size marketers are concerned that increased transportation costs will also add to their burden

Organic farmers also question the science behind the rule. They believe that the sustainable farming methods they use, such as mowing and mulching, rather than controlling weeds by chemical herbicide applications, naturally prevent the spread of harmful bacteria more effectively than treatment after the fact. According to almond grower Glenn Anderson, “An organic farming system fosters biodiversity and creates an environment where Salmonella cannot survive. This rule ignores the root causes of food contamination—the unnatural, dangerous, and unsustainable farming practices on industrial farms.”

An important segment of the agricultural community feels that requiring small-scale and organic farms to comply with this rule is unwarranted and premature, as Salmonella outbreaks have only been traced to very large industrial farms, and there is currently no published research pinpointing the causes of the harmful bacteria. “With the costs involved, and the implications on trade, they are recklessly experimenting with the livelihood of farmers,” Fantle added.

Furthermore, there is a lack of evidence supporting the use of propylene oxide (PPO) and steam as the only effective treatments to reduce risk of Salmonella. The most common method of sterilizing almonds is by PPO fumigation, a genotoxic chemical recognized as a possible carcinogen that is banned in the European Union, Canada, Mexico, and most other countries. Many chemical-free and heat-free alternatives are being researched. “The Almond Board has not released any of the scientific research justifying their treatment choices,” asserts Eli Penberthy, a policy analyst at Cornucopia. “This rule should not be implemented until alternative technologies are thoroughly explored.”

The Cornucopia Institute also contends labeling treated almonds as “raw” is misleading and deceptive to consumers. “People choose to buy raw almonds for a variety of personal reasons, including health, nutrition, and even religious beliefs,” Cornucopia’s Fantle said. “This rule denies them the right to control their food choices by making informed decisions in the marketplace.”

In fact, some strict vegetarians who consume only raw foods rely on almonds to provide as much as 30% of their caloric intake, believing that they are a nutritionally superior alternative to meat in the diet. “Raw almonds are increasingly popular for their health benefits,” said Goldie Caughlan, the Nutrition Education Manager at Puget Community Cooperative in Seattle, who estimates that the co-op sells 28,000 pounds of raw almonds every year. She said customers are already confused and angered by the implications of the rule, and worries how it will affect sales.

Fantle charges that the rule could very well establish a precedent for more governmental control of fresh foods. Says Fantle, “If almonds require pasteurization, what foods will be next on the list of mandatory sterilization, heat treatment, and irradiation? Truly raw, untreated nuts, fruits, and vegetables might no longer be legally available in the marketplace.”

Public concern about the almond treatment plan has been growing. Over 1,000 comments opposing almond pasteurization have been submitted to the USDA since the plan was approved on March 31, and an online petition to stop the implementation of the rule has garnered over 15,000 signatures.

The only exemption to the almond treatment regulations will be an allowance for growers to sell truly raw almonds directly to the public from farmstead stands. Unfortunately, this will give only a limited number of consumers in specific areas of California, the only state in the nation that produces almonds, access to untreated nuts.

Diets based on raw foods are integral to some religious denominations, such as Seventh-Day Adventism, so the rule poses a threat not only to consumer choice, but to religious freedom as well.