By Shawn Zeller, CQ Staff

What should it cost to sterilize an almond? That’s the question that now has many almond growers up in arms at the Department of Agriculture.

This month, the Cornucopia Institute, which does advocacy work for small farmers, protested that new USDA requirements to pasteurize the nuts are so expensive that they will drive many farmers to stop harvesting their almond trees.

The department is promulgating its new safety standards – approved last month by its Agricultural Marketing Service and slated for full implementation in September – in the wake of salmonella outbreaks in the almond industry in both 2001 and 2004. They require almond farmers to sterilize the nuts with one of an array of pasteurization techniques. The most common method, fumigation using propylene oxide, costs $500,000 to $1,250,000, says Mark Kastel, co-founder of the institute – and the other approved methods aren’t much cheaper.

“Besides the outcome being objectionable, the process was objectionable,” Kastel says; he charges that USDA never reached out to family farmers or consumer groups when it was drafting the rules.

So Kastel has written to Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns to ask him to reopen the rule-making comment period. And the Cornucopia Institute has launched a grass-roots campaign to get small farmers to do the same.

But Julie Adams, a top official with the California Almond Board, which is affiliated with USDA and helped to develop the regulation, contends that a broad cross-section of the industry collaborated drafting the rules over several years. Ditching the new regulations, she argues, would jeopardize consumer safety.

Kastel counters that’s simply scaremongering on the part of big growers, who can adapt more easily to the new method while driving small competitors out of business. What’s more, the salmonella outbreaks were “isolated situations,” and almond growers haven’t seen any new outbreaks since, he says. “Are we saying we should somehow treat 100 percent of the raw food in this country?”

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