SAN FRANCISCO — This summer's court victory by a group of small-scale farmers is raising hope among natural food retailers and raw food enthusiasts that unpasteurized almonds grown in the United States may one day again be available to consumers.
The farmers recently won an appeal in their continuing challenge to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's almond pasteurization regulations, which were enacted in September 2007 after a series of salmonella outbreaks traced back to the nuts.
Almonds are among the most popular nuts consumed in the United States. Last year's crop, grown primarily in California, came in at $1.8 billion, with a significant portion of that volume going to supermarket produce departments and bulk bins.
“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, pasteurization robs the nut of important nutrients — or worse, depending on the method used. Almonds are typically pasteurized either by steam or by gassing them with propylene oxide. The fumigant is rated in California as a carcinogen, though the Environmental Protection Agency classifies the gas as safe.
Regardless, gassing kills any chance of them being labeled as USDA-certified organic.
“If it were simply a rule that required testing of almonds — like they test milk for bacteria content — and tests showed some inherent quality defect, that would be a quality rule,” continued Vetne. “But requiring the processing of products, regardless of quality, is beyond the USDA's authority, we feel.”
The Almond Board of California, which created the raw nut rule adopted by the USDA, maintains that food safety is the only issue.
“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. Because the case is still active, officials declined further comment.
In an ironic twist, nuts have enjoyed a resurgence in popularity due to a government-approved health claim suggesting that “eating 1.5 ounces per day of most nuts, such as almonds … may reduce the risk of heart disease.”
The claim, approved in 2003, includes almonds, as well as hazelnuts, pecans, some pine nuts, pistachios and walnuts.
Almonds in particular promise to become even more in demand with the rise in non-dairy, alternative beverages. Of all the grain and nut-based “milks” introduced to date, consumers seem to be gravitating towards almond-based varieties, rather than those made with grains, hemp, coconut and even the category leader, soy.
“Most people grew up on milk and know what it is and how it tastes,” noted Brooke Hansen, brand manger of Dean Foods' Silk division, which began shipping its Pure Almond beverage line earlier this year. “Almond milk feels as familiar and comfortable, whereas soy still has a little bit of mystery behind it.”
As the appeals process winds it way through the courts, Vetne, the attorney, laments that the issue could have been resolved as it has with other raw foods.
“If it's unpasteurized, it's labeled,” he said. “Just like if you go to a restaurant or sushi bar, at the bottom of the menu there's a warning. It gives informed consumers a choice.”