Ooh, Scary! USDA Wants to Protect Us from Raw AlmondsAugust 28, 2012
The agency insists that even organic almonds be cooked, but doesn’t want consumers to know they aren’t raw or how they are cooked. Action Alert!
The “pasteurization” rule was introduced in 2007 in response to a string of salmonella outbreaks linked to large almond processing plants in 2001 and 2004; thirty-three people became ill, but no one died. (Contrast that to the thousands of deaths caused by prescription drugs each year!) California’s Almond Board colluded with the USDA to propose mandatory “sterilization” across the industry, and the USDA agreed to implement and enforce the new rule.
According to the Almond Board, five methods of “pasteurization” are permitted: oil roasting, dry roasting, blanching, steam processing, and the use of propylene oxide (PPO). A sixth method involved irradiating the almonds, and this was used for a number of years, but now the Almond Board states that “Almond pasteurization does not include irradiation.”
Certainly the first three methods completely cook the nuts, so they are no longer raw. Of the last two, steam causes a marked reduction in nutrient content and partially cooks the nuts, and PPO is, according to the EPA, a “probable human carcinogen.”
PPO is an extremely volatile liquid used in the production of polyurethane plastics. It was once used as a racing fuel, but was banned by both the National Hot Rod and American Motorcycle Racing Associations for being too dangerous—it’s so volatile that it is used in fuel–air bombs.
The material safety data sheet for PPO warns:
Causes gastrointestinal irritation with nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. May cause central nervous system depression, characterized by excitement, followed by headache, dizziness, drowsiness, and nausea. Advanced stages may cause collapse, unconsciousness, coma and possible death due to respiratory failure. Aspiration of material into the lungs may cause chemical pneumonitis, which may be fatal….May cause reproductive and fetal effects. Laboratory experiments have resulted in mutagenic effects. May cause heritable genetic damage.
According to the EPA, acute (short-term) exposure to PPO has caused eye and respiratory tract irritation, and skin irritation and necrosis. It’s also a mild central nervous system depressant and causes inflammatory lesions of the nasal cavity, trachea, and lungs. In animal studies, PPO causes neurological effects and tumors, leading EPA to classify it as a class B2 carcinogen, and California, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, and Massachusetts to list it on their state right-to-know registries as a known carcinogen.
So for raw almonds, your choice is to either cook them or make them potentially toxic. Steam treatments are running up to $2.5 million, whereas PPO starts at $500,000. Which do you think most farmers choose? Over 68% of almonds are treated with PPO.
Raw organic almonds not treated with PPO may be heat pasteurized with steam. But heat may oxidize the omega 3 fatty acids in almonds, potentially turning them rancid and producing free radicals, which are believed to play a role in the development of cancer and other degenerative diseases.
Even worse, there is no labeling requirement to show that almonds have been steamed or treated with PPO, so consumers are misled into thinking they are eating truly natural raw almonds when in fact they are not. Labeling is an absolute necessity for consumers to make an informed choice.
When the rule was instituted, raw and organic almond farmers were outraged and pushed back. They fought the USDA, and in 2010 a federal appeals court ruled they could challenge USDA’s almond regulation.
Now ANH-USA has submitted an Amicus Curiae brief in support of the plaintiffs (an amicus curiae, Latin for “friend of the court,” is an outsider who provides information to assist the court in making its decision). Our brief will allow ANH-USA to raise issues that may not be brought up by the plaintiffs during regular trial proceedings. It will also let us take a stand against the USDA and call attention to the public policy and public health implications of the almond rule.
Besides the aforementioned problems with the “pasteurization” process, there are serious legal concerns about the rule-making process. USDA did not go through the normal, open public hearing and comment process when issuing the almond rule. The agency contacted only 115 select almond growers and handlers—out of a total of over 6,000—to invite them to comment on the proposed rule, and consumers and retailers were almost universally unaware of the proposed rule. Only eighteen public comments were received from the entire country.
ANH-USA sees the almond rule as a slippery slope, because for the first time USDA is establishing minimum “standards” for how farm products are processed, setting a dangerous precedent for the potential sterilization of other organic agricultural products. Will they try to irradiate spinach, or will they realize the process will actually destroy the delicate product? We argue in our brief that the USDA is not a food safety agency and thus such decisions are not within their mandate.
The lack of labeling is arguably a violation of Section 5 of the FTC Act, which declares unfair or deceptive acts or practices to be unlawful. A “deceptive act” includes a “misleading omission.” Labeling steam-heated almonds as raw is intentionally misleading; and we would argue that not disclosing the fact that almonds are being treated with PPO, when the public, if they knew of the practice, would surely refuse to buy them, is extraordinarily deceptive.
Almonds have tremendous health benefits. They are an excellent source of manganese, copper, and vitamin B2 (all of which are important for the body’s energy production). Almonds are rich in magnesium, phosphorus, zinc and vitamin E, and high in health-promoting monounsaturated fatty acids and many other nutrients.
Raw almonds (with no heat applied) are particularly healthy. According to USDA data, raw almonds have more calcium, iron, potassium, fiber, manganese, and vitamin E. By insisting that raw almonds be “sterilized,” USDA is trying to take an extremely healthy food sound scary—something the public needs to be “protected” from, when actually the public may be more at risk from the chemical used to treat the nuts. Raw, organic almonds are not scary. As we point out in our brief, no salmonella outbreaks have been associated with organic almonds because they follow higher-quality processing controls. Therefore, organic raw almonds should not have been subject to the mandate in the first place.
Imported almonds are not subject to the almond rule (how is that for logic?)—so if consumers want real raw almonds, they will have to buy the imported ones. What a tragedy that our public policy is deliberately hurting the domestic market—especially small organic farmers, who need every sale they can get!
Action Alert! Tell USDA to put a hold on the almond rule at least until they open it up to public hearing and comment. Let them know that organic almonds should have been exempt from the almond rule since they already follow superior quality controls and there have been no salmonella outbreaks in connection to organic almonds. And insist that almonds that have been “treated” be labeled as such—particularly when PPO is used. Send your message to USDA today!