Almond growers file lawsuit against USDA

By Sarah Hills

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Lawsuit, Pasteurization, Almond, Us

Almond handlers and growers are taking legal action against the United States Department of Agriculture to overturn a controversial mandate which requires them to pasteurize the nuts.

A group of 15 growers filed the law suit this week claiming they have been economically injured by the regulations which were introduced a year ago following two salmonella outbreaks linked to almonds.

It is an issue that has divided the industry as the rule change was approved by the Almond Board of California, which was set up to represent the industry’s interests.

But now The Cornucopia Institute, which claims to promote economic justice for family-scale farming, has taken up the cause on behalf of the almond growers, calling for the rules to be relaxed.

The mandatory pasteurization of California Almonds came into force on September 1, 2007. It requires raw almonds to be treated with a toxic fumigant called propylene oxide or steam-heated before they can be sold to American consumers. Almonds grown overseas are exempt from this, and US growers believe they are losing out to their global counterparts because of this.

Mark Kastel, co-director of The Cornucopia Institute, told “Some of the farmers of raw almonds, conventional and organic, claim they have lost as much as 40-50 percent of their customer base.”

Kastel said that their customers include food processors as well as retailers and consumers. However, he added that the ruling only affects processors who are using raw nuts because if they are roasting nuts in the end product for example, they do not need to be pasteurized.

Kastel added: “We are not asking for financial damages, we are asking for the court to intervene.

“This is the first time we have sued to overturn a law or regulation.”

The lawsuit claims that the USDA stepped beyond its authority which limits it to regulating quality issues relating to almonds such as appearance and mould but the almond board said at the time that the measures were needed as a safety precaution.

In the past five years, the almond industry has experienced two incidents where raw almonds were recalled due to the presence of Salmonella. The board said that while contamination in almonds was not common, aggressive measures were necessary to prevent any other occurrences.

Some consumers have also objected to the pasteurization process. Propylene oxide is recognized as a carcinogen by the EPA (US Environmental Protection Agency) and the institute said that even though the nuts have been processed with a fumigant, or heat, they are still labeled as "raw".

The lawsuit was filed in the Washington DC federal court on Tuesday.

Ryan Miltner, the attorney representing the almond growers, said: “Rather than raising the level of income for farmers and providing handlers with orderly marketing conditions, this particular regulation creates classes of economic winners and losers.”

Thriving industry

Despite the claims by the organization that businesses have been seriously damaged and their futures jeopardized, the almond industry appears to be in good shape. In August the board reported that there were record shipments in 2007, which accompanied the industry’s largest crop ever.

The 2007 crop year-end statistics showed that 1.38 billion pounds of almonds, 24 percent more than the previous year, were harvested that year.

Total worldwide shipments grew by 18 percent over the prior crop year to reach 1.26 billion pounds. Shipments within the US rose 7.2 percent to reach 394.8 million pounds.

The US is the largest single market for California almonds and domestic shipments account for 31 percent share versus 69 percent for export shipments.

It said that if demand continues to grow at this rate, almonds will become the number one nut for global new product introductions in 2008.

California is the only US state that commercially grows almonds and last year the industry was worth about $1.4bn.

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