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Is it true that raw almonds must now be pasteurized? If so, what are the health implications of this new requirement?

Yes, starting on September 1, 2007, it became illegal for 100% raw almonds to be manufactured and sold in the United States, with two exceptions (discussed below). You can read the new law and its specific provisions by going to the website address of the California Almond Board at http://www.almondboard.com.

The origins of this new law date back to 2001, when an outbreak of Salmonella poisoning in Canada was traced back to an almond grower in California. At that time, the California Department of Health Services worked with that grower to increase the safety of almond production. But when a second round of Salmonella problems occurred with an entirely different grower, the federal government stepped in to consider a more comprehensive set of actions. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), together with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Centers for Disease Control (CDC), California Almond Board, and other agencies drafted legislation designed to prevent further Salmonella outbreaks based on post-harvest processing of almonds.

Specifically, these government agencies designed a mandatory pasteurization program in which handlers of almonds would be required to process the almonds in such a way that a dramatic reduction in the amount of Salmonella bacteria would take place. (In technical terms, a minimum 4-log reduction was set forth as the standard. A minimum 5-log reduction was also discussed, but not adopted.) To achieve this dramatic reduction in Salmonella bacteria, two major alternatives were envisioned: (1) exposure to steam heat sufficient to raise the surface temperature of the almond kernels to about 200°F (93°C) or (2) insertion of the kernels into a closed chamber where they could be exposed to propylene oxide gas (please note that fumigation with propylene oxide is not allowed in the processing of almonds if the almonds are going to be sold as certified organic).

Two exceptions to these processing requirements were included in the legislation. First, almond growers can receive exemption from these requirements if they can show that their ordinary manufacturing process achieves the same minimum 4-log reduction in Salmonella content. For example, their ordinary manufacturing process might include enough dry roasting or blanching to accomplish this same goal. Second, almond growers can also receive exemption if they will only be selling their almonds directly to customers at local markets, with a limit of 100 pounds per person per day in direct farmer's market sales.

What are the health implications of this new legislation that went into effect on September 1, 2007? First, I am expecting us to see a certain amount of potentially problematic almonds being prevented from entering the marketplace, and that prevention will be a good thing. Second, I am also expecting us to see some nutrient loss in steam-heated almonds that will be unwanted, and, in the case of many almonds, also unnecessary. Third, I am expecting us to see some propylene oxide residues in almonds that were gassed to reduce Salmonella concentrations, and this will be a bad thing because propylene oxide is classified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as a probable human carcinogen.

In the long run, I believe that the only solution to the Salmonella-and-almonds predicament will be to understand the underlying reasons why Salmonella bacteria become present in certain batches of almonds and to correct these underlying problems, which I believe have most likely evolved due to non-sustainable approaches to almond growing and inappropriate post-harvest processing. Yet, in the meantime, if you are looking for 100% raw, organically grown almonds, your only option is to purchase from a grower at a local farmer's market, from a grower who has received exemption from the mandatory processing rules, or from a certified organic almond grower outside of the United States who exports almonds to this country.

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