New Pasteurization Regulations Have Raw Food Growers Heated

December 5th, 2007

No almond joy
By Anna Belle Peevey, Correspondent

SAN FRANCISCO – Vinicio Penate crunches down on a piece of dehydrated almond bread at Cafe Gratitude’s central kitchen in San Francisco, on a break from his shift as manager. He is deliberate, working over each bite.

Penate says that for him, eating a raw almond is like eating the almond tree.

“All that strength, all that force, all that information, all the genetics,” he said, staring at a container of almonds. “They’re all there. They’re just untouched.”

Why then, Penate wonders, would the United States Department of Agriculture want to change that?

Penate, farmers and food specialists are all heated up over the USDA’s recent ruling requiring nearly all almonds grown in the United States to go through a pasteurization process before they are passed on to consumers.

Pasteurization, or the act of heating a food enough to kill potentially hazardous bacteria, is usually reserved for juice and dairy products. But after two salmonella outbreaks in 2001 and 2004 were traced to almonds from California farms, the Almond Board of California, the marketing agency for California’s largest tree crop, decided to push for the regulation.

Small growers, though, say the new rules are just an additional burden on their industry, which they say is already overregulated. They see the rules as an indication that further restrictions are forthcoming on other crops, from leafy greens to melons.

At the same time, many are concerned about the use of propylene oxide – a chemical involved in one of the pasteurization processes. Critics say its use is a form of fumigation, not pasteurization, and is unsafe – the European Union and Canada have banned it – but the USDA and the Environmental Protection Agency defend its use.

“Generally, the majority of consumers want to know their food is safe,” said almond board spokeswoman Marsha Venable.

While the board acknowledges that contamination is not common, she said members felt aggressive measures were needed to prevent any other occurrences.

“As an industry, we have our consumer’s health and safety in mind,” Venable said.

Susan Brauner, spokeswoman for Sacramento-based Blue Diamond, the largest almond exporter in the United States, said the company began pasteurizing all its almonds in 2001, just after the first almond-related salmonella incident. “It is our priority to protect our consumers from getting sick,” she said.

In 1996, the beverage company Odwalla began pasteurizing its apple juice after an E. coli virus outbreak among children who had drunk the juice. In 2006, after spinach farmers across the U.S. dealt with another E. coli scare that resulted in five deaths and more than 100 infections, industry leaders drafted stricter guidelines to curb contamination.

Now almonds are being targeted, and regardless of the safety implications, people – raw food enthusiasts and organic farmers in particular – are upset.

The new regulation applies to growers who sell more than 100 pounds per day to an entity, typically retailers and restaurants. Generally, farmer’s markets and roadside stands will remain unaffected.
Yet Jean Chevalier of Taber Ranch in Yolo, whose almonds will now be pasteurized, calls the regulation ridiculous.

“I eat ’em raw right out of the field,” he said. “I still have both legs and I’m not sick.” The regulation will affect his bottom line, Chevalier said: “The middle man seems to be making the money, not the farmer.”

The raw benefits

Almond pasteurization points to a growing trend in tighter produce policies, and many small farmers agree that the agricultural industry should do more to prevent salmonella contamination at its source.
Judith Redmond, owner of Full Belly Farms in Capay Valley, who has grown organic almonds since 1985, is one of them.

“The mode of industrial agriculture,” Redmond said, “is that instead of addressing the cause, they deal with the problems.”

Chevalier said that other factors must be looked at before a “blanket approach” is used to pasteurize everything. Many farmers advocate a preventative plan of action, one that targets poorly managed agricultural practices, rather than treating the nuts after harvest.

Salmonella contamination occurs from contact with animal feces – which can come from sources such as raw manure or irrigation run-off from neighboring cattle farms. During the harvesting process, the almonds lay on the ground – ground that often contains raw manure – and can potentially come into contact with feces.

Chevalier and others say it is because of large-scale industrial farming practices such as the use of raw manure that contamination becomes a greater risk.

“It’s not about protecting health. It’s about centralization and domination of an industry,” said Matthew Engelhart, the owner of the Cafe Gratitude chain, where raw almonds are a mainstay of its menu choices.
Many say that pasteurization will take away from the overall quality of the nut.

“The Almond Board wants to say there is no perceivable difference,” said Amanda Caskey, retail manager of Cafe Gratitude. “It’s just not true. It’s like saying a cooked apple and a raw apple are the same thing.” The board said that because the internal temperature of the nut doesn’t change during pasteurization, the nutritional value of the almond remains intact.

Caskey disagrees. She said that although the middle of the almond remains unheated, “the whole rest of the almond is where the vital enzymes that are available in raw foods are still living.”

Raw food consumers and experts like Caskey do not heat their food above the 108 to 118 degree-range.
“Once you go above a certain temperature,” she said, “those enzymes are no longer alive.”

Venable said the Almond Board is conducting enzymatic research at North Carolina State University to determine the exact impact of heat treatment on enzymes.

Chemical or heat?

One of the major reasons some are upset over the new regulation involves the use of a chemical known as propylene oxide.

Because it is the least expensive option for battling potentially dangerous bacteria, many almond handlers _ the manufacturers who receive the nut from the grower – will use it to process conventional almonds as a result of this new regulation.

The almond board lists this fumigation process among the possible pasteurization procedures, although many say that because the treatment is more chemical-based than heat-based, it’s misleading.

Ben Feldman of the Ecology Center, the organization that runs Berkeley’s farmer’s markets, said “the chemical process is not truly pasteurization. They’re lumping them all together when the impact on the almond may be different. It’s confusing.”

Foods treated with propylene oxide are banned in the European Union and Canada, and the EPA classified it in 2000 as a “probable human carcinogen.” In 2006, however, the agency amended the classification to say that there was a “reasonable certainty of no harm” if used in low enough quantities.

Brauner said Blue Diamond only uses propylene oxide in the treatment of its product. She said no chemical residue is left on the almond after the process that would affect the health of the consumer.

Some say allowing treated almonds to be labeled as “raw” will be misleading. The USDA does not require retail merchants to use the “pasteurized” label on their packaged almond products. This means that almonds that have gone through pasteurization may still be labeled as “raw” on supermarket shelves.

Yet Full Belly Farm’s Redmond sees it as similar to the current USDA legislation that does not require foods with genetically modified organisms to be labeled either.

“The industrial food system wants to give as little information as possible to the consumer,” Redmond said. “We want people to know where their food comes from.”

Back at the Cafe Gratitude kitchen, Penate is busy working on a bowl of almond hummus. His cafe uses more than 50 pounds of raw almonds per day, and they’re not sure what they will do once their current supply runs out.

He said that they’ll think of something, because raw almonds are the cornerstone for their entire menu _ over half of their daily choices involve almonds.

“It’s the perfect balance of nutrients, carbohydrates and protein,” Penate said. “All of that, packed into one little nut.”

    Anna Belle Peevey is a student at the University of California, Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Contact her at [email protected].


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