Thefts of nuts are putting a dent in the $1.3 billion California walnut industry and could pose a food safety threat that could cripple the industry.

That was the warning sounded by Marilyn Kinoshita, Tulare County agricultural commissioner, at this year’s 44th Tri-County Walnut Day meeting in Visalia. Kinoshita talked of changes in a Tulare County ordinance that she hopes will become a model for other counties in the face of thefts that are both costly and potentially compromising as the federal government looks to step up food safety requirements under its Food Safety Modernization Act.

In a brief talk at the meeting, Kinoshita said the county, among the leaders in walnut production with a crop valued at about $140 million in 2011, has tightened regulations in an effort to thwart as much a couple dozen thefts in a season in that county alone. She said she believes the California Walnut Commission should make the curbing of thefts “a top priority.”

Kinoshita shared the podium with commission leaders who touted growth in the industry as it makes gains in new markets, in part due to health research; a weed control authority who recommends more use of pre-emergents rather than trying to zap weeds after they are already in the orchard; and a specialist in irrigation for developing orchards.

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Other topics including spacing of trees, codling fly and husk fly management, identification and management of canker diseases and nutrient management.

Kinoshita said eight people were prosecuted through the Tulare County District Attorney’s Office for thefts last year after changes in the ordinance that made it a crime to attempt to sell any quantity of walnuts without proof of ownership and established “buyer periods.”

She said thievery had reached such a level that growers hired security guards to patrol orchards. The stolen nuts, lifted from orchard floors, were sold at street markets or to handlers and packers. North of Tulare County, there were thefts of truckloads of nuts.

Kinoshita said the sale to handlers can be especially problematic because there is not the traceability that comes with other walnut purchases. With the federal government looking at new food safety regulations, she said, the industry could be seriously hurt if handlers co-mingle untraceable purchased nuts with others. She cited the instance of cantaloupe contamination out of Colorado that took its toll on sales of that commodity out of California and elsewhere.

Kinoshita said the Tulare County ordinance specifies that growers can pick up permits that allow gleaners to pick up nuts within an orchard. “We don’t need worm motels on the orchard floor,” she said, adding that the permits keep law enforcement from spending time on legitimate collection of nuts.

The new ordinance resulted from cooperation with the commission, with the county Department of Agriculture, the county’s District Attorney’s Office and Sheriff’s Office and the Tulare County Farm Bureau.