Feud over access to raw almonds likely to end up in Federal court

The Almond Board of California discussed a proposal from The Cornucopia Institute to modify the almond pasteurization mandate at its November meeting. Cornucopia’s proposal called for placement of a warning or advisory label on unpasteurized almonds, alerting consumers to the difference. The proposal would have allowed for the continued availability of raw almonds in the marketplace, while alerting consumers such as pregnant women, immune suppressed individuals, and raw almond enthusiasts that there might be some, theoretical, increased risk of pathogenic disease from eating the untreated nuts.

Cornucopia’s compromise proposal was in response to the new USDA mandate that requires all almonds to be “pasteurized” using either a toxic fumigant or steam-heating process. Many almond growers and consumers highly object, not only to the fact that these almonds will still be, deceptively, labeled as “raw,” but also to the near-secrecy of the USDA’s new rulemaking process.

The Almond Board rejected Cornucopia’s proposal. The Board’s CEO, Richard Waycott, told Cornucopia that they do not have the authority to make such a decision and that only the FDA has the power to do so. While Waycott may be technically correct, the Almond Board’s support for such a plan would have carried considerable weight with federal regulators. Furthermore, Waycott indicated that the pasteurization effort was proceeding smoothly with few objections.

Such positive thinking differs markedly from what Cornucopia is hearing from organic and family-scale farmers. A number of these growers have reported unexpected increases in processing and transportation costs related to the requirement that they treat their nuts with either a fumigant or steam. And the expenses the growers are experiencing are well above the costs initially estimated by the Almond Board in their economic analysis of the rule’s impact on farmers. In fact, one organic almond farmer told Cornucopia that he has lost $450,000 in sales due to the new rule.

In late November, staff from Cornucopia were in Washington, D.C. One goal of the visit was to deliver more than 1500 individually signed proxy-letters to the USDA calling for suspension of and a full public review of the pasteurization rule, and input from all stakeholders that should have taken place initially. The proxies were in addition to thousands of other petition signatures, e-mails and postal comments submitted to the Secretary’s office.

While in Washington, Cornucopia staff also appeared before the National Organic Standards Board urging them to clarify that the toxic fumigant, propylene oxide, will not be used to treat organic almonds, something that remains unclear at this time.

Should USDA officials remain unmoved, Cornucopia expects to head into federal court seeking a judicial remedy, and staff, along with their legal team, are currently doing associated research. The court option, because of its expense, has been the last choice all along, but it may soon be the only option left to preserve market opportunities for small and organic farmers and the right of consumers to eat truly raw almonds grown in the U.S.

Consumers and industry participants can add their voices to this debate by visiting Cornucopia’s web site (www.cornucopia.org) and downloading a proxy-letter to mail back to Cornucopia-additional proxies will be hand delivered to the USDA. A proxy-letter, along with other background materials, can be found by clicking on the Authentic Almond Project link. -Cornucopia Institute

Clorox: bleach, charcoal and ... Burt’s Bees

In a high-priced and highly unexpected deal, the maker of Clorox bleach, Kingsford charcoal and Brita water filters has added the leading natural personal care brand to its portfolio in a $950 million cash acquisition.

Clorox is paying 5.5 times Burt’s expected $170 million in 2007 sales, a multiple similar to the one Procter & Gamble Co. paid for Gillette in 2005. Then again, Burt’s Bees is growing faster—at a compound annual clip of 25 percent the past three years—and Clorox is betting it can grow much faster still if backed by the distribution muscle of a company with $4.6 billion in sales.

Burt’s, which has grown its business largely through health, natural food and other specialty stores, entered Target earlier this year, and it already had plans in place to begin a distribution test with Wal-Mart Stores by year-end, according to a person familiar with the matter.

Clorox and Burt’s Bees executives declined to comment on Wal-Mart distribution prospects but said the distribution power of Clorox, which already gets 26 percent of its sales from Wal-Mart, was a key factor in justifying the deal.

Other bidders for the hottest property in natural personal care included Unilever and SC Johnson, according to another person familiar with the matter. Spokespeople for those companies couldn’t be reached for comment.

Burt’s gives Clorox its first major entry into personal care and furthers its involvement in two of what Chairman-CEO Don Knauss has identified as consumer megatrends: sustainability and “health and wellness.”

Dovetailing with the Burt’s acquisition is the planned rollout later this year of Green Works by Clorox, billed as an environmentally friendly cleaning line that aims to tap growth that has been captured lately by independent brands such as Method and Seventh Generation. The latter has seen growth of 40 percent to around $100 million in sales during the past year, according to CEO Jeffrey Hollender.

Clorox also plans to grow the business globally, helping address one of its shortcomings: only 15 percent of Clorox sales come from outside the U.S., compared with nearly 60 percent for P&G.

But the pairing of a natural products brand with a consumer base won largely through environmentally focused retailers could be a tough branding fit with a company known best for making chlorine bleach, said people familiar with Burt’s.

Then again, “It’s likely not many of the consumers or category targets for Burt’s Bees products are even going to know that Clorox has acquired the company,” said Robert Passikoff, founder of the New York branding consultancy Brand Keys. That said, however, he doubts Clorox or Burt’s Bees will do much to make them aware of the link either.

“We’re going to continue to run the business with the same team and the same principles with the same integrity of the natural products and sustainability that we always have,” said John Replogle, CEO of Burt’s Bees. “So really there should not be any perceived change for the consumer. And if you get to know Clorox and their people, mission and values, they’re tightly aligned with our own.”

The company will remain based in North Carolina, not move staff to Clorox headquarters in Oakland, CA. -Organic Consumers Association AdAge.com

FSIS final rule allows Chile to export poultry and poultry products to the U.S.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) announced on October 31st, 2007, that the country of Chile will be allowed to export poultry and poultry products, processed in certified establishments within Chile, to the United States effective December 3rd, 2007.

FSIS has determined that Chile’s laws, regulations and other materials showed that its poultry inspection system includes requirements equivalent to all provisions in the Poultry Products Inspection Act and its implementing regulations. FSIS, through annual on-site reviews, will verify that establishments certified by the government of Chile continue to meet all U.S. requirements.

In addition to relying on its initial determination of a country’s eligibility and performing ongoing audits to ensure that products shipped to the U.S. are safe, wholesome and properly labeled and packaged, poultry and poultry products exported to the U.S. from Chile will be subject to FSIS re-inspection procedures at ports of entry for proper certification, labeling, transportation damage and general condition. Selected shipments will be subject to additional re-inspection procedures including examinations for product defects, laboratory analyses to detect harmful chemical residues, or pathogen testing appropriate for the product. -Food Consumer.org

Organic air-freight food to be stripped of status

Three-quarters of the organic food flown in to Britain from overseas could be stripped of its valued status, as part of a plan to cut carbon emissions by eliminating air-freighted food from supermarket shelves.

Only those farmers or processors which can prove they meet stringent ethical standards would be allowed to keep their organic status, the Soil Association announced in late October.

The environmental charity’s policy director Lord Melchett estimated that currently only about a quarter of all exporters of organic food met high enough ethical standards to keep their all-important organic label.

Farmers must start investing in local communities, allow their workers to form unions and fund education schemes by 2009 if they want to keep their status. “Some will find it impossible I suspect,” he said.

Sweet potatoes and salad flown in from America would the most likely foods to be stripped of their organic status.

The measures follow a public consultation in which scores of respondents called for food transported by air to be banned from carrying the organic logo.

More than half of those who responded said they wanted to see an outright ban in a bid to stop one of the main causes of carbon emissions. Air freight generates 177 times more greenhouse gases than shipping, according to the Soil Association.

But the organization, which certifies about 70 per cent of Britain’s £1.9 billion organic food sector, said an outright ban would hit producers in developing countries who relied on organic exports for a decent profit.

It also said that organic farming was often a force for good in Africa, helping to cut down on pesticide poisoning, which hits 60 million people a year.

One Ghanaian pineapple company, Blue Skies, said that it would be impossible to continue supplying Waitrose and Sainsbury’s if it could no longer air freight.

“To cut a pineapple or mango, take it down to the port and expect consumers to eat it five weeks later is impossible,” said its director Anthony Pile.

His company complies with the Soil Association’s ethical standards so would keep its status under the proposals.

However, Lord Melchett insisted the elimination of air freight was inevitable over time. “Air freight will become a thing of the past. It has to,” he said.

Just one percent of all organic food—in weight terms—is flown into the UK, mostly pre-cut fruit and vegetables popular in the lunchtime snack section of supermarket aisles.

These imports equate to £42 million, but the Soil Association warns that air freight is growing rapidly and could “obliterate” all the cuts made within the UK by households cutting down on carbon emissions. -ChewsWise.org, www.telegraph.co.uk