USDA weighing compromise proposal

In late November, Cornucopia staff arranged a meeting with USDA Undersecretary Bruce Knight to discuss concerns and problems with the now-implemented mandate requiring pasteurization of all raw almonds grown by domestic producers for sale in the U.S.

For more than an hour, Cornucopia’s two codirectors met in Washington, DC with three high-ranking USDA officials with the bulk of the discussion centered on almonds. Interestingly, we learned that half of all the comments coming into the Secretary’s office at this time are on almonds!

People across the country are upset with the pasteurization plan and want the ability to again buy raw, untreated domestically grown almonds. We want to thank and congratulate all our collaborators on helping elicit such a strong response.

As you know from our website, we have also been asking people to print out, sign and send us a proxy letter that we will to hand-deliver to Washington decision makers. We used this meeting as an opportunity to deliver a stack of well over 1500 letters. It was an impressive moment. And we were told that all of these new contacts will have to be logged in with the thousands of previous public comments received on this issue.

(As more letters continue coming into our office, we will continue to deliver them directly to the USDA, please encourage anyone who has not submitted a proxy yet to download one from our website and send it to us.)

We were asked why there was such a public outcry on this rule with the officials expressing their surprise and amazement at the level of public concern. We explained the diverse desires of consumers, the demands of product manufacturers, and the mounting negative impact of the rule on family farmers and organic farmers who are losing markets and income from the pasteurization plan.

A number of almond farmers have reported to us that they have lots tens of thousands of dollars in sales, experienced higher than expected processing costs, and are seeing store shelves now carrying foreign almonds where their product used to be on display. Some are even worried that they may go out of business. And the large industrial-scale growers – who demanded this plan – are feeling little pain as they sell the vast majority of their product abroad where pasteurization is not required.

We offered a compromise proposal for USDA to consider, one that we believe can help resolve this situation. We suggested that USDA support a plan allowing for the sale of untreated American grown almonds with a warning label. The warning label serves two purposes: it allows for continued freedom of choice in the marketplace and it allows those marketers who want the option of continuing to “pasture as” raw almonds.

Having a warning label is by no means our first choice but might be the only politically expedient option at this point in time and a number of growers and handlers that we have spoken to have supported this compromise position.

The warning label approach is something that is already done for other foods sold in the U.S., such as some fresh, unpasteurized fruit juices. We know that FDA would have to be involved with such a labeling action, but we fully believe that if USDA throws its weight behind the proposal (along with the thousands of consumers and commercial interests who would support this) that such an approach would likely gain approval at the FDA.

USDA officials also questioned us on a second and companion solution — a pasteurization exemption for organic almond growers. The organic sector has not been implicated in any of the past contamination problems associated with almonds. Organic growers have their own set of mandatory protocols and best management practices that are employed in their orchards which substantially lower the salmonella contamination risk.

An exemption for organic growers would greatly diminish the harm that is being caused to these farmers who are losing marketshare to imports. This might be a good fallback compromise position although we are afraid that it will leave many growers and consumers of conventional almonds disadvantaged.

Our proposed solution to the situation was not rejected, but was met with some expression of support. In fact, one of the participants described our meeting as”rather constructive.” We were asked to send the officials a formal letter outlining the specific remedy to the problem, which we have since done.

Clearly for this proposal to gather more support from USDA, it will have to be further discussed and approved of by others at Agency (((you can’t get much higher up than the folks we were talking to and the meeting was sanctioned by Knight))). We were encouraged by what we heard and how the offer was received.

But that doesn’t mean we are going to sit around waiting for their decision. We are building support for a potential legal challenge with attorneys. We made certain that the officials in this meeting knew that we are prepared to go to court and challenge the almond pasteurization rule over its many and unexpected adverse impacts should this compromise proposal be rejected. We tried to impress upon them that time was of the essence in crafting a compromise before going to court.

We are continuing to network with other organizations around the country while gathering more information from farmers hurt by the rule and from retailers and product manufacturers who are shifting to untreated raw foreign almonds to meet consumer demand. And we will be talking with more members of Congress about all of this.

Most of all, we need you to help keep the heat turned-up on the USDA. Please continue sharing with us any information, thoughts, and/or questions that you think would be useful in this campaign.

Because the negotiations with the USDA are at a critical moment we would encourage you to reach out to your members, customers and network of friends and family asking them to download one of the proxy letters from the Cornucopia website and mail it back to us — if they have not already done so. We want a steady stream of these letters delivered to the USDA every week or two until we are finished with the negotiations.

Together, let’s keep the pressure on.

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