Insights by Goldie
“Real” raw California almonds are “outlawed.” That’s the nutty truth!

Sound Consumer | October 2007

by Goldie Caughlan
Quality Standards Specialist

Little Alice, wandering in Wonderland, said things were “curioser and curioser.” That’s my reaction to how raw almonds came to be outlawed, replaced by imposters — so-called pasteurized nuts — but not labeled “pasteurized.”

At PCC we won’t accept the status quo and we hope you won’t either, even if you personally may not care whether the nuts you eat are raw. The issues at stake are fairness, transparency, consumer choice and truth in labeling.

I’ve spent a fair amount of time reading the Web site of the Almond Board of California (ABC), studying its role as a federal marketing board and seeing that it has tremendous power to impact directly the livelihood of commercial almond growers in California, organic and non-organic.

almonds

It is not surprising that the ABC was concerned about how its image would be affected by the public perception of the safety of raw California almonds, after just two outbreaks of salmonella food poisoning.

The first, in 2001, was traced to raw California almonds from one large conventional almond grower and affected about 100 people in Canada.

Three years later, 29 people in the United States and Canada were sickened and raw California almonds were suspected, although the source never was established. One person unfortunately did not survive their illness, and an expensive lawsuit reportedly was processed against a large almond grower, although I found scant details.

The ABC’s concern and responses initially seemed appropriate. They increased education efforts in order to heighten awareness of pathogens present in orchards and processing facilities and increased vigilance and sanitation at all points. After the second outbreak its approach hardened and it pressured members to fumigate voluntarily or otherwise pasteurize all raw almonds, shelled and in the hull.

Propylene oxide (PO), listed as “possibly carcinogenic to humans” by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, is the cheapest and most readily available fumigant for nuts and grains and is commonly used by large conventional operations. PO can achieve a “5-log” reduction of pathogens (meaning: if 100,000 are present, the pasteurized nut has 1).

The ABC determined and USDA agreed that any method that could achieve a “4-log” reduction is an acceptable threshold, reducing 100,000 pathogens to 10. ABC literature continually (mis)characterizes all “treatments” as “pasteurization.” Sterilization may be a more accurate term.

The consumer never will know if the “pasteurization” was by chemical fumigant or heat treatment, unless the almonds are USDA Certified Organic. In fact, some non-organic roasted or blanched almonds may have been fumigated — but not labeled. It’s not right!

The ABC claims that a subjective analysis of “taste, texture and appearance” shows “pasteurized” nuts have “no discernible differences.” They gloss over objective factors of nutritional content or quality with phrases such as “substantial equivalence.”

Nowhere is there mention of the obvious question: Will a “pasteurized” seed dependably sprout? Will it grow a healthy plant?

I’ve been told that some nut buyers tried sprouting a few and that some seeds do seem to sprout okay. I am very skeptical though, considering that heat treatments and chemical fumigants kill pathogens.

Last fall the ABC sought USDA’s intervention to mandate fumigation or “pasteurization.” USDA caught the ball, rolled it fast, and, in just a few months, achieved ABC’s desires. USDA published notice in the Federal Register, as required, seeking comments.

ABC made sure certain industry members responded. A total of 18 favorable comments were posted, none opposed. Somehow, consumer groups, perhaps putting out fires elsewhere, missed the posting. Mission accomplished, ABC!

That rolling ball then continued downhill, into the waiting jurisdictional arms of the Food & Drug Administration (FDA), which regulates all labels on food. And that, dear readers, is how “real” raw almonds came to be outlawed and replaced by “pasteurized” imposters that are still labeled as raw.

FDA (officially and true-to-form) sees no reason to label almonds that have been sterilized, regardless of the treatment method. The same FDA sees no reason to label genetically engineered foods either!

Are you sufficiently outraged? Good! Join PCC and others in supporting efforts of the Cornucopia Institute’s Authentic Almond Project. It’s leading a coalition effort to return “raw” almonds to the marketplace.

Visit www.cornucopia.org, call 608-625-2042, or write P.O. Box 126, Cornucopia, Wisc. 54827. Sign petitions, write letters, tell your friends! We can do this!

Meanwhile, be assured that we’ll post appropriate signage with so-called “raw” California almonds.

More about: almonds, FDA, food politics, pasteurized, USDA

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