Federal Court Victory: Almond Farmers Can Challenge USDA Pasteurization Rule

August 3rd, 2010

Onerous Rule has Devastated California Raw Almond Producers

WASHINGTON, DC – A federal appeals court ruled today, overturning a lower court decision, that a group of California almond farmers have the right to challenge a USDA regulation requiring the treatment of their raw almonds with a toxic fumigant or steam heat prior to sale to consumers. For the past three years, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has denied American consumers the right to buy raw almonds, grown in the USA, when they shop in grocery and natural food stores.

A group of almond growers sued the government to challenge USDA’s rule, but the federal district court ruled that courtroom doors were closed to the growers’ claims. The controversial rule has cost individual farmers millions of dollars in lost sales since it was enacted in September 2007.

“We are delighted by the court’s decision,” said Will Fantle, Cornucopia’s Research Director. Cornucopia has been coordinating the legal strategy for the farmers’ lawsuit. “At long last the farmers who have been injured by this rule will have the opportunity to stand in court and state why this poorly thought out regulation should be thrown out,” Fantle added.

The USDA and the Almond Board of California imposed the treatment scheme to minimize the risk of salmonella contamination outbreaks like those that had occurred with almonds in 2001 and 2004. USDA investigators were never able to determine how salmonella bacteria somehow contaminated the raw almonds that caused the food illnesses but they were able to trace back one of the outbreaks, in part, to the country’s largest “factory farm,” growing almonds and pistachios on over 9000 acres.

Family-scale growers have argued that the onerous and expensive mandated treatment regime is only needed by the giant industrial producers, who have less control over the quality of their nuts, and has hurt their market because it consumer resistance.

Many in the industry have questioned the logic exempting foreign-grown almonds from the treatment scheme. Imports have displaced raw domestic nuts in many major markets and retail locations across the U.S. This regulatory loophole is part of what has been crushing California producers.

“I am very happy with this first step in overturning this destructive regulation,” said Nick Koretoff, an almond farmer and plaintiff in the lawsuit. “The treatment mandate has been a financial catastrophe for me. My consumers want raw, untreated healthy almonds and I have been denied the opportunity to sell them what they want.”

Attorney John Vetne, who has been representing the almond farmers, said the Appeals Court made a “very strong decision affirming farmers’ rights.” The USDA had been arguing that farmers did not even have the right to legally challenge the USDA regulation. “We are pleased that the Appeals Court rejected USDA’s argument that courthouse doors are closed to farmers. We now intend to demonstrate to the federal district court that USDA acted outside of authority granted by Congress when it denied California almond growers a consumer market for raw almonds,” Vetne added.

Tens of thousands of consumers have expressed their discontent with the raw almond treatment rule in comments to the USDA. Organic and raw foods enthusiasts were particularly incensed that the nuts, despite being processed with propylene oxide (identified as a carcinogen by the federal EPA) or steam-heat, were still allowed to be labeled as “raw” — many believe that essential nutrients in food can be destroyed by heat, radiation and toxic chemicals.

The Cornucopia Institute, an organization known for its research and defense of family farmers involved in organics, artisan and local food production, was impressed with how many consumers have a real passion for maintaining the availability of raw food and nuts, including almonds, and have been willing to financially support the farmers in their legal challenge. “Contributions continue to flow in supporting this effort,” Fantle noted.

“I and many of my friends look forward to the day when we will once again be able to easily purchase truly raw, authentic almonds from California in my local store,” said Joan Levin, a Chicago resident and raw foods consumer. “We hope this Appeals Court ruling brings that day closer,” she said.


    For more on the raw almond issue, and to support the legal effort for truly authentic raw almonds, go to Cornucopia’s Raw Almond Project page.
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