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 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.
SAN FRANCISCO -- 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.
Source: Associated Press