Organic almond supporters roast pasteurization plan
George Raine, Chronicle Staff Writer
Thursday, August 23, 2007
A new food regulation that mandates the pasteurization of California almonds leaves a bad taste in the mouth of Jesse Schwartz, a purveyor of raw organic almond butter and other natural foods in Berkeley.
For 25 years, as president of Living Tree Community Foods, he has done business with small Central Valley farmers, and now, effective Sept. 1, he'll have to buy raw nuts for processing from Italy, Spain and Turkey - almonds of lesser quality, he will tell you.
"Almonds are a part of the heritage of the American people, and it makes me very sad that they're about to dump a fumigant on our American heritage," Schwartz said, referring to a method of pasteurization that involves chemicals.
After two outbreaks of salmonella bacteria poisoning that were traced to almonds - in 2001 and 2004 - the Almond Board of California, the industry's trade association, proposed to the Department of Agriculture that mandatory sterilization be imposed in the name of consumer safety. The government agreed, the rule was written and was scheduled to take effect next month.
On Aug. 1, the Almond Board's directors, fearing there was insufficient sterilization equipment and too few operators in place to treat the nuts and deliver an uninterrupted supply, petitioned for a postponement of the rule to March 1.
This week, the government denied the request, confident the deadline can be met.
The rule that was more than three years in the making - one that burnishes the almond industry's reputation for safety or sullies the noble nut, depending upon your view - will apply to about 500 million pounds of almonds sold in the United States annually.
All the nation's almonds, 1.3 billion pounds this year, are produced in the Central Valley. More than half are exported, and those are exempt from the pasteurization rule. Growers at farmers' markets and those selling from roadside stands are also exempt and can sell raw, unpasteurized almonds to consumers. But the share of the crop sold in the U.S. market - to retailers and food processors, for example - is covered.
In most cases, almond handlers - middlemen who buy nuts from growers and sell to customers - will have responsibility for the pasteurization, and some of the work will be done by food processors or third-party companies.
Some of those almonds will be sterilized by oil roasting and blanching. Organic growers will submit their crops to steam heating, a method approved by organic overseers, although many organic growers are still queazy about the rule.
The most common method of sterilizing almonds is propylene oxide fumigation, using a chemical compound that is classified by the Environmental Protection Agency as a probable human carcinogen and that was briefly used as a racing fuel that added oxygen molecules to gasoline.
The National Hot Rod Association put a stop to that in 1993 because of propylene oxide's association with cancer, according to a spokesman.
"The only people who can use that stuff are dressed in space suits with rubber hands and masks," said Schwartz, the raw foods advocate who says the pasteurization rule is an overreaction to the two outbreaks and that "nature provides almonds to us in sterile form" protected by husk and shell.
However, propylene oxide has been used for food sterilization - particularly in nuts, spices and cocoa power - since 1958 and is authorized by the Food and Drug Administration and Environmental Protection Agency.
In the 2001 salmonella incident, several dozen people were sickened in Canada. In 2004, several dozen people were sickened in the United States and eight other countries. In both cases it is believed the almonds came into contact with bacteria at processing plants.
"We said that is unacceptable, that both consumers and our industry are at risk," said Richard Waycott, the chief executive officer of the Almond Board of California, in Modesto. "We said, 'Let's figure out what we can do.' "
California almonds handled by Blue Diamond Growers in Sacramento, the largest nut processing and marketing company in the world, representing 3,000 growers, have been pasteurized for four years. The sterilization was a response to the outbreaks. "This is to assure consumers that our products are safe to eat," said Susan Brauner, director of public affairs for the company.
She said the majority of almonds are consumed either as an ingredient in other products and therefore roasted or heated to a temperature that effectively achieves pasteurization. Uncooked almonds are less than 10 percent of the total market, she said.
It's a passionate sector, nonetheless. Advocates in the raw foods and organic movement have prompted more than 15,000 people to sign petitions seeking a halt to enforcement of the pasteurization rule.
"This rule is the brainchild of a subset of the industrial agricultural community" and generated only 18 public comments before critics turned their attention to it, said Mark Kastel, executive director of the organic watchdog group Cornucopia Institute, which is fighting the government's ruling.
"It's more of a ploy by the big outfits, the big handlers, to drive the small guy out of business, because it's easier for them to do the treatment on a large scale," said Hendrik Feenstra, an almond handler in Orland (Glenn County).
Glenn Anderson, an organic almond grower in Hilmar (Merced County) for the past 18 years, said, "It feels like somebody has really done a number on us here. My customers tell me they want to buy the same product they have bought from me for the last 18 years, and I would like to have the right to do that, if that's what the consumer wants. Seems like the American way to me."
Anderson and other organic growers also object to the rule because they believe sustainable farming methods they use, including mulching rather than controlling weeds with chemicals, naturally prevent bacteria.
There will be a cost for the treatment, estimated at 3 to 5 cents per pound, and growers may absorb those costs, said Dave Phippen, a co-owner of Travaille and Phippen, growers, packers and shippers of almonds in Manteca (San Joaquin County).
"That's the way it should be, to advance a very healthy product," said Phippen, a former chairman of the almond board.
He said that objections from raw foods and organic advocates were considered in the rule-making process and that is why the heating process was added to the other methods of sterilization.
"The flip side of that is if there is another outbreak, usually the press does not distinguish between organic and nonorganic - they just made someone sick," said Phippen. "So the consensus was that all almonds would have to go through the kill step because with an outbreak we would have a blemish on the California almond name whether organic or not."
Waycott, the Almond Board's chief executive, said that "a prerequisite was that there would be no degradation of the product" in the pasteurization process. He said nutrition specialists have tested almonds pre- and post-pasteurization and have not found differences in "sensory attributes."
That's a tough sell for Schwartz of Berkeley.
"Before long, it seems," he writes on his Web site, "all the food sold in the Untied States will be genetically modified, irradiated, pasteurized, homogenized, hydrolyzed and packaged for a two-year shelf life and it will all be labeled as 'All Natural.' "
Anderson's Web site
Schwartz's Web site