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USDA plan to “pasteurize” almonds has consumers going nuts; mandate would require use of chemical fumigant or heat treatment on “raw” almonds
Small-scale farmers, retailers, and consumers are renewing their call to the USDA to reassess the plan to “pasteurize” all California almonds with a toxic fumigant or high-temperature sterilization process. All domestic almonds will be mandated to have the treatments by early next year. The plan was quietly developed by the USDA in response to outbreaks of Salmonella in 2001 and 2004 that were traced to raw almonds.

“The almond ‘pasteurization’ plan will have many harmful impacts on consumers and the agricultural community,” said Will Fantle, research director for The Cornucopia Institute, a Wisconsin-based farm policy research group. “Only 18 public comments from the entire U.S.-and all from almond industry insiders-were received on the proposal. The logic behind both the necessity and safety of the treatments processes has not been fully or adequately analyzed-as well as the economic costs to small-scale growers and the loss of consumer choices.”

Last Wednesday, the California Almond Board suddenly requested that USDA delay the treatment mandate until March 2008—it had been scheduled to take effect on September 1. “We support this request for a delay,” said Fantle, “but a delay, due to the industry being unprepared, isn’t enough. The USDA must also re-open the rule for public review and comment so that those who have been shut out of the decision-making process can have input into any almond treatment plan.”

Although foodborne illnesses have garnered headlines in recent years, including contamination of California-grown spinach and lettuce, raw produce and nuts are not inherently risky foods. Contamination occurs when livestock manure or other fecal matter is inadvertently transferred to food through contaminated water, soil, or transportation and handling equipment. Raw foods can also be infected by poor employee hygiene and sanitation practices either on the farm or in processing facilities.

And the fear in the farming community is that this will competitively injure smaller sustainable and organic growers. “This will put American farmers at a distinct disadvantage in the U.S. and abroad,” says organic almond farmer Mark McAfee. Fumigated almonds are banned in the EU and many other countries. McAfee worries about the impact of the rule on his business. Seventy percent of California’s crop is exported.

Several domestic companies that use California almonds are already investigating foreign sources for their needs. After buying almonds from local producers for over 25 years, Living Tree Community Foods, a Berkeley, CA-based natural foods supplier, will soon begin buying almonds from Italy and Spain. Dr. Jesse Schwartz, the president of the specialty retailer, believes the rule, if implemented, will be a travesty for American agriculture. “California almonds are the heritage of the American people,” he says, “they are superior in every way.”
Jason Mahon owns Premier Organics, a company that produces raw almond butter in Oakland, CA. Mahon is also looking to foreign suppliers and believes the rule is an unnecessary “fear-based decision of the Almond Board, that is clearly trying to protect itself from bad press and lawsuits.”

The equipment to meet the new USDA mandate is very expensive, ranging from $500,000 to $2,500,000. Farms can outsource the pasteurization process, but Hendrik Feenstra, a small-scale California handler of organic almonds, believes that to do so will still be prohibitively expensive for modest-sized growers and handlers. “Because pasteurization companies often charge a flat rate no matter the quantity of almonds, it could be four or five times more expensive for small-scale almond producers to pasteurize almonds than it will be for industrial-scale producers,” Feenstra says. And modest-size marketers are concerned that increased transportation costs will also add to their burden,

Organic farmers also question the science behind the rule. They believe that the sustainable farming methods they use, such as mowing and mulching, rather than controlling weeds by chemical herbicide applications, naturally prevent the spread of harmful bacteria more effectively than treatment after the fact. According to almond grower Glenn Anderson, “An organic farming system fosters biodiversity and creates an environment where Salmonella cannot survive. This rule ignores the root causes of food contamination—the unnatural, dangerous, and unsustainable farming practices on industrial farms.”

An important segment of the agricultural community feels that requiring small-scale and organic farms to comply with this rule is unwarranted and premature, as Salmonella outbreaks have only been traced to a very large industrial farm, and there is currently no published research pinpointing the causes of the harmful bacteria. “With the costs involved, and the implications on trade, they are recklessly experimenting with the livelihood of farmers,” Fantle added.

Furthermore, there is a lack of evidence supporting the use of the chemical fumigant, propylene oxide (PPO), and steam as the only effective treatments to reduce risk of Salmonella. The most common method of sterilizing almonds is by PPO treatment, a genotoxic chemical recognized as a possible carcinogen that is banned in the European Union, Canada, Mexico, and most other countries. Many chemical-free and heat-free alternatives are being researched. “The Almond Board has not released any of the scientific research justifying their treatment choices,” asserts Eli Penberthy, a policy analyst at Cornucopia. “This rule should not be implemented until alternative technologies are thoroughly explored.”

The Cornucopia Institute also contends labeling treated almonds as “raw” is misleading and deceptive to consumers. “People choose to buy raw almonds for a variety of personal reasons, including health, nutrition, and even religious beliefs,” Cornucopia’s Fantle said. “This rule denies them the right to control their food choices by making informed decisions in the marketplace.”

Fantle charges that the rule could very well establish a precedent for more governmental control of fresh foods. Says Fantle, “If almonds require pasteurization, what foods will be next on the list of mandatory sterilization, heat treatment, and irradiation? Truly raw, untreated nuts, fruits, and vegetables might no longer be legally available in the marketplace.” -Cornucopia Institute [Editor’s Note: According to late-breaking news at press time, the USDA has rejected the six-month extension requested by the Californa Almond Board to delay implementation of the pasteurization rule. This issue may be far from settled; watch for additional information in the October Reader. Send comments to USDA Secretary Mike Johanns at: agsec@usda.gov.]

Quick facts: corn-based ethanol adds to global food crisis

  • In the past 12 months, the global corn price has doubled.
  • Because corn is the most common animal feed, this affects the price of milk, cheese, eggs, meat, as well as corn-based sweeteners and cereals.
  • In the U.S., milk prices have nearly doubled.
  • Butter prices in Europe have spiked by 40%.
  • Pork prices in China are up 20%.
  • In Mexico there have been riots in response to a 60% rise in the cost of tortillas.
  • In six of the past seven years, global grain consumption has exceeded production. As a result world grain reserves have dwindled to 57 days. This is the lowest level of grain reserves in 34 years.
  • While the UN lists 34 countries as needing food aid, 30% of next year’s grain harvest in the U.S. will be converted to ethanol to fuel cars. -Organic Consumers Association

Study: organic farming can feed the world
Organic farming can yield up to three times as much food as conventional farming in developing countries, and holds its own against standard methods in rich countries, U.S. researchers said in mid-July.
They said their findings contradict arguments that organic farming—which excludes the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides—is not as efficient as conventional techniques.

“My hope is that we can finally put a nail in the coffin of the idea that you can’t produce enough food through organic agriculture,” Ivette Perfecto, a professor at the University of Michigan’s school of Natural Resources and Environment, said in a statement.
She and colleagues analyzed published studies on yields from organic farming. They looked at 293 different examples.

“Model estimates indicate that organic methods could produce enough food on a global per capita basis to sustain the current human population, and potentially an even larger population, without increasing the agricultural land base,” they wrote in their report, published in the journal Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems.

“Corporate interest in agriculture and the way agriculture research has been conducted in land grant institutions, with a lot of influence by the chemical companies and pesticide companies as well as fertilizer companies, all have been playing an important role in convincing the public that you need to have these inputs to produce food,” Perfecto added. -Organic Consumers Association, Reuters

Organic food ‘better’ for heart
A ten-year study comparing organic tomatoes with standard produce found almost double the level of flavonoids—a type of antioxidant. Flavonoids have been shown to reduce high blood pressure, lowering the risk of heart disease and stroke. Flavonoids have also been linked with reduced rates of some types of cancer and dementia. Writing in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, the team said nitrogen in the soil may be the key.
Dr Alyson Mitchell, a food chemist at the University of California, and colleagues measured the amount of two flavonoids—quercetin and kaempferol—in dried tomato samples that had been collected as part of a long-term study on agricultural methods. They found that on average they were 79% and 97% higher respectively in the organic tomatoes than in the conventionally grown fruit.

These findings also confirm recent European research, which showed that organic tomatoes, peaches and processed apples all have higher nutritional quality than non-organic.
New Scientist magazine reported that the different levels of flavonoids in tomatoes are probably due to the absence of fertilizers in organic farming. Flavonoids are produced as a defense mechanism that can be triggered by nutrient deficiency, such as a lack of nitrogen in the soil.

The inorganic nitrogen in conventional fertilizer is easily available to plants and so, the researchers suggests, the lower levels of flavonoids are probably caused by over-fertilization. -Cornucopia Institute, BBC News