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Open Letter to USDA to Stop Mandatory Raw Almond Pasteurization

Secretary Mike Johanns
United States Department of Agriculture
1400 Independence Ave SW
Whitten Building Suite 200A
Washington, D.C. 20250

Dear Secretary Johanns -

As stakeholders in the domestic almond industry, we are concerned and alarmed by the potential ramifications of the USDA's pasteurization mandate for all domestically grown raw almonds sold in the United States. We would like to take this opportunity to share our concerns with you regarding this important new regulation.

These are matters we would have preferred to raise with you and the USDA during the comment period earlier this year when the draft rule was published for review. Unfortunately, the majority of the undersigned were unaware of the proposed regulations. Almost none of us were the generous recipients of a private mailing to handlers and processors from the Almond Board of California alerting us to the draft regulation and inviting our comments. Perhaps this accounted for the incredibly anemic 18 public comments that were submitted on the draft regulation. Nonetheless, our concerns are legitimate, and we believe they should be addressed by the USDA.

One thing we can all agree on is that California almonds are the industry's gold standard; they are clearly the superior-quality product available in the marketplace. What is at stake, however, is the future structure and shape of domestic almond production and the continued consumption and use of California almonds in this country.

As you certainly understand, the almond is not an inherently risky food. Salmonella contamination, from fecal material, occurs when it is introduced during the handling and processing of almonds. We believe it makes sense to minimize those practices that contribute to contamination risks.

However, the preferred plan of mandatory pasteurization selected by USDA is being rushed forward and has yet to be carefully vetted by all industry stakeholders. In particular, the following aspects still need to be publicly addressed:

* American almond farmers are being placed at a distinct economic disadvantage. The fact that imported raw almonds sold in the U.S. do not require pasteurization harms domestic producers and is already shifting some domestic markets to foreign sources as retailers and manufacturers of products formerly containing California almonds make the switch. These savvy marketers understand that their consumers want truly raw almonds. The foreign raw almond treatment loophole is totally illogical and at odds with the rule's rationalization of public safety and may very well not stand a court test.

* This rule will impose financial burdens on small-scale and organic farmers. The costs of the chemicals and heat treatments, in addition to the costs of extra transportation and reporting, will be disproportionably taxing on smaller producers and handlers. This is unfair since none of the reported Salmonella cases in 2001 or 2004 were traced to small-scale or organic farms. We know that the Almond Board of California performed a cursory economic analysis of the treatment impacts. The lot size for treatment, used in the macro analysis, does not take into account the realities of organic and small-scale production.

* The least expensive option approved for "pasteurization" is treatment with propylene oxide. This substance is classified as "possibly carcinogenic to humans" by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. Propylene oxide treatment of foods is banned in the European Union, Canada, Mexico, and many other countries. We assume you know this, as almonds exported from this country will not require pasteurization. The need to segregate exported almonds will add a significant economic burden for many producers/handlers.

* Neither the USDA nor the Almond Board of California has released the scientific research publicly justifying the selection of propylene oxide treatment. We need the opportunity to review why it makes sense for U.S. customers to eat almonds gassed with a substance that most of the world questions the safety of. Only the Almond Board of California and its constituents have researched the pasteurization of almonds, reporting that there is no significant reduction in their quality or nutrition. Serious questions remain unanswered.

* Organic growers and handlers that we have collaborated with indicate that there is a shortage of facilities able to provide the high-temperature or steam treatment of raw almonds. Since the propylene oxide process is not allowed under the National Organic Program Standards, this presents a difficult situation for California's organic almond producers. This issue must be resolved before mandated pasteurization begins. Unless you intervene, domestically produced organic almonds may become unavailable after September 1. In addition, no research has been released for public review that assesses potential nutritional and compositional changes that occur in the steam-treated nuts. The public needs to see this research and have the opportunity to review and comment on it prior to this rule going into effect.

* It is misleading and deceptive to label pasteurized almonds as "raw." Many consumers wish to purchase truly raw, unprocessed almonds, for health, religious, or other personal reasons. In fact for some consumers with serious health issues, raw almonds may comprise as much as 30% of their dietary intake following their personal processing of the nut into various food forms. One reasonable alternative to the new rule would be to provide an unpasteurized almond option with a label clearly identifying the almond as unpasteurized. Another option would allow exemptions for organic and small-scale growers-there is some evidence that almonds grown in these environments might be inherently less risky in terms of contamination.

* If there is an ongoing issue with Salmonella contamination, we need to see the scientific research that identifies it as a systemic problem, and not one that is associated solely with the largest almond farming operations or poor handling practices at the hulling and shelling level. We also want a full review of other treatment alternatives that might be less objectionable to consumers.

The above-noted comments capture many, but not all, of the issues we are concerned with regarding the mandated pasteurization plan.

We are requesting that you take action in the best interests of all almond stakeholders. Therefore, we ask that you suspend the implementation of this new regulation for a minimum of 180 days prior to the September 1 implementation date and then initiate a full review of the almond pasteurization rule with the widely disseminated notice of the opportunity for public input.

Respectfully yours,

(Industry participants, growers, and public interest groups are listed in alphabetical order)

Industry Participants:

4th Street Food Co-op
Ashland Food Cooperative
Basics Cooperative
Berkshire Co-op Market
Chequamegon Food Cooperative
Community Food Coop
Company Shops Market
Cook County Whole Foods Co-op
Davis Food Co-op
Food Conspiracy
Food Front Cooperative Grocery
Glut Food Coop
Goba's Healthfoods
Good Foods Market and Cafe
Gooseberries Real Food Market
Hendersonville Community Co-op
Hummingbird Wholesale
Hungry Hollow Coop
Isla Vista Food Coop
Island City Food Coop
Jimbo's....Naturally!
Larabar
Lexington Cooperative Market
Life Grocery Natural Foods Coop
Living Tree Community Foods
Lucia's
Lydia's Organics
Natural Foods Co-op
Norcal Almonds
Nutiva
Olympia Food Coop
Once Again Nut Butter
Organically Grown Company
Ozark Natural Foods Co-op
PCC Natural Markets
People's Food Coop
Pioneer Organics
Premier Organics
Pure Food Partners
Rainbow Grocery Cooperative
Rock Creek Organics
Sacramento Food Coop
Seven Stars Farms
SoyStache
Sundance Natural Foods (Espart, CA)
Sundance Natural Foods (Eugene, OR)
Trillium Natural Foods Community Coop
Veritable Vegetable
Wedge Co-op
Wendy Paulsen, Independent Organic Inspector
Wheatsfield Cooperative
Wildtime Foods
Willimantic Food Coop
Willy St. Co-op

Growers:

Alm Hill Gardens
Amsterdam Organics
Anderson Almonds
Andrew Werthmann
Andrick's Brook Farm
Bateman/Kersten Farm
Beckner Farms
Bill Sanda
Blue Moon Farm
Braga Farms
Bremner Almonds
Brent Naylor
Capay Canyon Ranch
Charles and Bethany Eck
David and Edie Griffiths
Debbi Woods Staley
Elk Valley Guest Farm
Francesca Fresh Produce
Full Belly Farm
Harry MacCormack
Haussler Organic Farm
Hendrik Feenstra
Jim Munsch
Kirihara
Lagier Ranches
Live Earth Farm
Lyn Willerth
Maculans Farm
Maisie Jane's Sunshine Products
Mallard Bend Farms
Margaret Hoeffel
Marian Farms
Mary Jane's Farm
Massa Organics
Merrifield Farms
Monte Fredo Farm
Orangewood
Organic Pastures
Purity Organics
Randy Brewer
Riverdance Farms - Thompson
Riverdance Farms - Lashbrook
Riverdog Farm
Robert and Pam Moore
Stan Barth Farms
Sunbow Farm
Thomas Sisters Organics
Tir Na Nog Farm
Tom Johnson Farms
Tufts Ranch
Ward and Rose Marie Burroughs

Organizations:

Alliance for Sustainable Communities--Lehigh Valley
CASA del Llano, INC
Community Alliance with Family Farmers
Samuel S. Epstein, M.D., Cancer Prevention Coalition
Eat Local Challenge
Family Farm Defenders
Florida Organic Growers and Consumers
Grass Roots
Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy
Local Harvest
Northeast Organic Farming Association (New Hampshire)
Northeast Organic Farming Association--New York
Organic Consumers Association
Pesticide Action Network North America
Raw Food Right Now
Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group
The Campaign
The Cornucopia Institute
Weston A. Price Foundation

Supporters:

Angela Stokes
Ariane Glazer
Bea James
Jim Fealy
Joan Levin
John Graham
K. Bishnell
Linus Hollis
Lisa Russell, wholesaler
Mary Ida Compton
Matt Monarch
Melissa Cohen
Metta Zetty
Monique and Philip Hooker, consulting chef
Nancy Cichowicx, nutritional health counselor
Nicole Rosa
Renata Muzis
Sal Agnello
Scott Patterson