Growing nuts

Clean almonds—at what cost?

Federal farm officials are hoping to knock the ‘ell out of any salmonella that might be carried by almonds, but not everybody is happy about it.

Starting this Saturday (Sept. 1), growers of the area’s second-largest cash crop—more than $104 million last year in Butte County alone—will be responsible for pasteurizing their product before sending it to market.

So insists the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which promulgated the mandate some time ago because of concerns about salmonella outbreaks linked to almonds. The Almond Board of California pleaded with the USDA to delay the new rule for six months to avoid interruption during the harvest season, but the feds rejected the request for a March 1, 2008 deadline.

Following salmonella outbreaks in 2001 and 2004 linked to almonds, the board began research programs to develop standards for the almond pasteurization process, Almond Board spokeswoman Marsha Venable said. Part of the research focused on developing other pasteurization methods than the traditional roasting.

Steaming hulled and shelled nuts pasteurizes almonds in such a way that not even raw-food enthusiasts could tell the difference between pasteurized and unpasteurized, Venable said.

Steaming is not the only alternative to roasting, however. Another pasteurization method has critics worried. This method, approved by the board, exposes almonds to the chemical propylene oxide (PPO) for up to four hours at a temperature of 125 degrees. Nine major nut facilities with combined capacity to treat 68 percent of domestic almond shipments have PPO treatment capability.

PPO has been used for many years, Venable said, and in July 2006 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency determined the chemical, once an additive in racing fuel, poses no health risk.

Some studies, however, have shown PPO to be carcinogenic. The chemical has been linked to respiratory and reproductive problems in rats.

The pasteurization requirement is driving raw-foodists nuts, you might say. They’re worried about losing a staple in their diet. California is the only state that produces almonds, and the Central Valley produces 80 percent of the world’s almonds, according to the Almond Board’s Web site.

“Raw foodists around the world depend on a reversal of this ruling,” said raw-foods advocate Jeff Rogers in a press release from

The requirement for organic almonds to be pasteurized also upsets Rogers because the incidents of salmonella outbreak were linked to conventional almonds and not the organic nuts.

Even with no confirmed link between salmonella and organic almonds, Venable said, the bacterium knows no boundaries. Dust moves through the Central Valley, birds fly over all orchards, and cows graze where they want.

“Mandatory pasteurization is the third leg in a plan to provide consumers with a safe and healthful product,” Venable said. “The first and second are something the Almond Board have already spent a lot of time on, and that is good agricultural practices and good manufacturing practices.”

Regardless of a consumer’s interest in the state of his or her food—raw, pasteurized, certified organic, whatever—all almond eaters will begin to pay more for the tasty nuts. That’s because the farmer is going to pay more—up to 5 cents a pound—to get almonds from tree to market.

“It’s going to affect the grower because the processor is going to pass on a cost,” said Colleen Aguiar of the Butte County Farm Bureau. “But you can’t put a dollar figure on a safe product.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has exempted almonds sold at farmers markets from the new pasteurization requirement.