After two-years of research and consultation across California’s almond industry, the Almond Board of California’s “action plan” creating a mandatory pasteurization program to eliminate any salmonella bacteria in California almonds is now in the final public comment phase.

The ABC’s voluntarily developed plan would modify the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s grower-initiated almond federal marketing order. Submitted to the USDA, the proposed rule was published in the Dec. 6, 2006 issue of the Federal Register. A 45-day public comment period on the rule ends on Jan. 22. A 60-day public comment period on the information collection associated with the rule ends on Feb. 5.

The plan is the result of two years of healthy discussions between the ABC and the almond industry.

USDA Agricultural Marketing Service Administrator Lloyd Day said the department has worked closely with the almond industry in developing the anti-salmonella plan.

“Will that (action plan) be what the final rule ends up looking like? -- maybe or maybe not,” Day said following his speech to almond growers at the 34th Almond Industry Conference on Dec. 6 in Modesto, Calif. “But we certainly worked closely with the (almond) industry in order to achieve consensus so that we will have a rule to help create a safer food supply.”

Food safety is the bottom line of the pasteurization plan. Outbreaks were traced to California almonds in 2001 and 2004. The industry fears a third bout could cause irreparable harm.

“Because of the two incidents we’ve had, we are on the hard drive of regulators in this country…and we’ll probably stay there,” said ABC President and Chief Executive Officer Richard Waycott during the almond industry’s December conference. “What happens when you have a couple of (food safety) incidents, you become one of the foods that is looked at when an incident occurs.”

Ended shipments

Hughson Nut President Martin Pohl knows first hand about salmonella-tainted almonds. Located in Hughson, Calif., his company processed the problem almonds in 2001. He said the tainted nuts came from a farm, not from his facility. The incident resulted in a shutdown of the company’s almond shipments for six weeks to two months. Since then a propylene oxide fumigation system was installed.

“When we first had our incident, we sent product off to have it sterilized and we realized we had to do it for ourselves because as a company we could not afford another incident,” Pohl said.

An advocate of the ABC’s plan, he believes the mandatory component is critical.

“I think it (plan) has probably been put together as simple as possible,” he said. “As an industry, we are all in this together. When every handler sells a product or puts a product out there to the general public and another problem occurred, it wouldn’t necessarily equate with that handler - it would equate with the industry. I think we all have to protect our participation in this industry. If one or two don’t and we have another problem, we will all suffer.”

Pohl called the almond industry a proactive group trying to produce the best quality product possible for the consumer so there is no concern about pathogenic contamination.

Waycott lauded the almond industry for healthy discussions on the plan. If adopted by the USDA, the rule change would take effect on Aug. 1, 2007 with the beginning of the ’07-’08 crop year (Aug. 1, 2007 – July 31, 2008).

The ABC’s goal is to treat almonds for potential pathogen contamination without sacrificing product quality or the flavor that consumers expect. This would be accomplished through the results of research by the ABC and private companies, and through mandatory participation across the almond industry.

Mandatory program participation is critical to ensure that procedures are consistent across the industry, the ABC said. “Consumers will have the assurance that California almonds are the safest, highest quality almonds in the marketplace.”

Under the plan, almond handlers would pasteurize almonds with two exemptions: untreated almonds shipped directly from a handler to an ABC-approved direct verifiable user (DV) in North America (U.S., Mexico, and Canada); and untreated almonds exported outside of North America. Under both exemptions, packaging containers (i.e. cartons, bins, totes, etc.) would be labeled “unpasteurized.”

Prove safety

To qualify as a DV user, manufacturers must prove to the ABC that the almonds would go through a process to achieve a minimum 4-log reduction of salmonella before reaching consumer channels. The manufacturer would be subject to regular audits.

The ABC’s technical expert review panel would review applications including a review of treatment technologies against specific scientific criteria. Denied applicants could appeal first to the ABC Board of Directors. If appealed further, the USDA would have the final say.

If the DV customer does not use the purchased almonds, manufacturers would return unprocessed nuts to the handler, sell them to another approved DV user, ship them to destinations other than North America as long as the nuts continue to be labeled as unpasteurized, or dispose of the almonds through non-edible channels.

Under the plan, handlers would be required to prepare a treatment plan explaining how pasteurization procedures would be incorporated into the operations. Final plans would be due by May 2007.

The ABC would conduct compliance visits with possible USDA assistance. According to the ABC’s Merle Jacobs, violations could cost a handler up to $1,000 per day.

Many of the technologies used for pasteurizing almonds such as propylene oxide, blanching, and oil roasting have been used in the industry for years. Other methods like steam treatments have undergone research to ensure that no significant degradation in the quality or sensory attributes occurs in treated almonds. Experts have noted no significant or meaningful differences between pasteurized and unpasteurized almonds.

Almond industry participants are urged to fully understand the proposal.

“Get a copy, understand the (proposed) rule, and work with the (ABC) board staff to ensure that you have the solutions in your own operation that will work best for you individually and your customer base,” said ABC Senior Director of Industry Relations Julie Adams. “The industry knows that the board is there to work with them and make it as easy as possible.”

Found in raw foods, salmonella is killed by heating or removed by washing. Salmonella is spread by wildlife and domestic animal feces, or through water, poor fertilization practices, and other agricultural methods.

California growers produce 100 percent of the U.S. almond supply, and 80 percent of worldwide production. California’s almond industry is a $2.5 billion annual revenue maker. The state exports two-thirds of the crop to 90 markets worldwide. Almonds are the largest specialty crop grown in the United States.

email: cblake@farmpress.com