Almonds Processed With Toxic Chemicals & High Heat Are Not "Raw"
In response to two outbreaks of Salmonella in 2001 and 2004 traced to raw almonds grown in California, the Almond Board of California and the USDA have quietly developed a new regulation mandating that all almonds undergo a sterilization process that includes chemical and/or high-temperature treatments.
The plan is angering many small-scale farmers, retailers, and consumers. This new rule is controversial for many reasons. It could force family farms out of business, ignores the underlying systemic problems with conventional agriculture that cause food contamination, and is upsetting to consumers seeking organic and raw foods.
Truth in Advertising, or Greenwashing Questionable Technology?
While the USDA generously describes the new almond treatments as pasteurization, the most common treatment method expected to be used fumigates almonds with propylene oxide. In lab experiments, the chemical leads to gene mutation, DNA strand breaks, and neoplastic cell transformation. The U.S. EPA has classified propylene oxide as a probable human carcinogen. Its use in treating food for human consumption is banned in the European Union, Canada, Mexico, and most other countries.
Organic Almonds Might Be Safer but Will Not Be "Raw"
The only exemptions to these new regulations will be organic "raw" almonds, which will not be fumigated, but will undergo the steam-heat treatment, and small-scale growers who can sell truly raw almonds but only direct to the public from farm stands. Almonds that have heat treatment will deceptively still be labeled as "raw," despite having undergone surface sterilization treatments.
Family Farmers Could Be Squeezed Out of Business
The costs of the chemical and heat treatments, in addition to the costs of transporting and recording the new procedures, will be especially onerous on small-scale and organic farmers. The equipment to pasteurize almonds is very expensive. A propylene oxide chamber costs $500,000 to $1,250,000, and a roasting line can cost as much as $1,500,000 to $2,500,000. Smaller, family-operated handlers that buy almonds from small, family-owned almond growers and cater to the organic and natural foods markets, are concerned that they will not be able to afford such expensive equipment and will be forced out of the almond business.
Unlike milk, eggs, and meats, for which real pasteurization or cooking offers an important protection from food-borne illness, no scientific evidence exists to show that almonds are an inherently risky food. In fact, Salmonella contamination of almonds can only occur when livestock manure or fecal matter is inadvertently transferred to the nuts through contaminated water, soil, or transportation and handling equipment. Almonds may also be infected by poor employee sanitation either on the farm or in processing facilities.
While two outbreaks may bring bad publicity and economic losses to the almond industry, it does not prove that almonds are inherently unsafe. Is it justified to impose these onerous regulations on an entire industry, impacting all consumers, because of two relatively small outbreaks, one of which has been traced to Paramount Farms, a giant, industrial-scale farming operation raising 70,000 of acres of nut crops, that is by no means representative of the industry as a whole?
The rule is set to go into effect on September 1. The Cornucopia Institute has formally asked the USDA to re-open the regulatory proceeding to allow for additional public input and review. Only 18 public comments-all from the almond industry-were received on the draft rule when it was open for public comment in early 2007. Unlike consumers, retailers, or other organizations concerned with food safety, all almond handlers received a personal letter or fax from the USDA alerting them to the sterilization proposal and inviting their comments. It's time other stakeholders-consumers and retailers-have an opportunity to have their voices heard in this matter.
We urge all concerned consumers, retailers, and farmers to contact the USDA and demand that the new rule mandating "pasteurization" of almonds be re-opened for public comment and review. Cornucopia has a comprehensive fact sheet on the almond issue on its web page, and a sample letter for interested individuals to send to the USDA can be found at http://cornucopia.org/index.php/almonds/
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