'Safety' in Overdrive: Pasteurizing Almonds

Most mornings I get up, go downstairs, put on the kettle, and eat a handful of almonds while I wait for the water to boil. I make some toast and some tea. It has always seemed like a pretty tame way to start the day. The Almond Board of California disagrees, and has taken it upon themselves to save me from the danger lurking in my breakfast.

In 2001 and 2004 two outbreaks of salmonella poisoning were traced back to almonds. According to the Center for Disease Control's documents, a total of 33 people were hospitalized; no one died. (For perspective, the federal government estimates that about 1.4 million people get salmonella poisoning every year, approximately 15,000 of whom are hospitalized.)

For the almond industry, it was undoubtedly a big deal. Millions of pounds of almonds were recalled. The potential for future incidents spelled trouble, and industry leaders were savvy enough to know that another recall could have major long term consequences for a crop they spend millions each year promoting as "the healthiest specialty crop in the world."

The industry's federal marketing order, the Almond Board of California (ABC), took action immediately after the 2004 outbreak. Under zero pressure from the public (and about as much input) they voluntarily created, and then asked the USDA to mandate, an action plan that goes into effect on September 1, 2007.

The new protocols require all raw almonds sold in North America to be pasteurized, thereby killing off any wayward bacteria. How? By quick-steaming the nuts, or spraying them with propylene oxide (PPO), a chemical so nasty that it was banned by both the National Hot Rod and American Motorcycle Racing Associations, where it had been used as a fuel before being deemed too dangerous. PPO is also a carcinogen. For these and other reasons, most countries, including the EU, ban imported nuts treated with PPO. (The ABC is actively working to change that.)

I like to avoid ingesting post-harvest fumigants when I can. Especially hot-rod fuel. Trouble is, the almond industry is not going to be advising the public which nuts got the steam treatment and which ones got the PPO. I, for one, would like to know. A little moist hot air is one thing; a cancer causing has-been motorcycle fuel is another.

Now, of course, those who prefer steam can fork over the considerable cash for organic almonds, which in my neighborhood are going for $17.79/pound. Thanks to the national organic standards, those pearls are guaranteed to be PPO-free. But that's the only way to know you are getting steam-pasteurized nuts.

One of the funkiest things about this whole situation is the lack of options. Growers are not allowed to opt out of the pasteurization program, regardless of how they market their nuts. Even almonds sold at farmers markets must be zapped beforehand. Nor are consumers allowed to make their own decisions regarding the relative risks of salmonella vs. PPO. Unpasteurized nuts are simply banned from the market. And since the ABC claims that pasteurized nuts retain all the qualities of rawness, the nuts will continue to be labeled simply as "raw almonds." Most people won't even know there has been a significant change in the product.

This issue has gotten virtually no press outside of the "raw food" world, where people are understandably upset. Almonds are a mainstay for people who eat only raw food, where the nutritional paradigm calls for avoiding any foods whose enzymes have been altered by high heat. For them, steam-pasteurized nuts are as bad as roasted ones.

That consumers were not asking for greater protections misses the point. The absurdity of an industry actively promoting the use of a dangerous chemical, which is four to five times more costly than its alternative, is similarly off track. Given the incredibly low odds of almonds getting caught up in a major salmonella outbreak, even public health is not what this is about.

It's convoluted, I know, but follow me on this next part: this is a perceived public perception issue. The Almond Board is so concerned that consumers may turn their backs on almonds that it is willing to use a sledgehammer to kill a mosquito. See the following statement from the ABC's Action Plan for pasteurization: "Pasteurization fulfills the industry's vision to produce the world's healthiest specialty crop, protects the multi-million dollar investment the industry has made in the nutritional benefits of California almonds, and protects the favorable image consumers have about California almonds."

Unfortunately for the almond industry, in trying to protect their image, they have gone too far and will end up losing some of us who have dutifully and happily been eating our "can a week," like the old commercials asked. This consumer would far prefer to see the ABC press its growers and processors to implement the agricultural practices that prevent bacteria problems. If that is too much to ask, I'd like to see the Almond Board offer the market a choice: give us both pasteurized and unpasteurized nuts, properly labeled, and allow us to decide which goes down better with our tea and toast.

If you would like to contact the Almond Board of California with your comments, you may reach them online at www.almonds.com

Erin Barnett is the Director at LocalHarvest, and a breakfast lover. You can reach her at .

Back to the June 2007 Newsletter