Almonds are among the most popular nuts consumed in the United States, and have a government-approved health claim. Last year's crop came in at $1.8 billion.
The majority of almond growers, mostly larger farms, have no complaints. Not so with smaller growers. After some initial setbacks, a group of them won an appeal that brings them one step closer to achieving their goal: Directly challenging a 2007 U.S. Department of Agriculture rule mandating pasteurization of all domestically grown almonds.
“The question is whether farmers have the right to come to court to complain about the conduct of the secretary of agriculture, who is supposed to protect the interests of farmers,” said John Vetne, the plaintiff's attorney. “This decision said, ‘Yep, they can.’”
Underneath the legalities lies a deeper issue. U.S. farmers are prohibited by the 2007 rule from selling raw almonds in the open marketplace, though imports are exempt. Organic and raw food enthusiasts complain that, not only are they deprived of a California-grown product, the pasteurization robs nuts of important nutrients — or worse, depending on the method used. Almonds are typically pasteurized either by steam or gassing them with propylene oxide. The fumigant is rated in California as a carcinogen, though the Environmental Protection Agency says the gas is safe.
Regardless, gassing kills any chance of them being labeled as USDA-certified organic.
The Almond Board of California, which created the raw nut rule adopted by the USDA after two salmonella outbreaks, maintains that everyone had a say in the rule.
“The food quality and safety program, including pasteurization … was developed after an extended, transparent process involving all segments of the almond industry,” the board said in a prepared statement.
As the appeal winds its way through the courts, Vetne said the issue could be resolved simply by adopting measures that are taken with other raw foods.
“If it's unpasteurized, it gets labeled,” he said.