Nuts to You, Say Almond Growers Filing Federal Suit

Mark Kastel, my good buddy over at The Cornucopia Institute, send me a red alert on Wednesday.

Seems a group of 15 almond growers filed suit in a Washington, D.C. courthouse on September 10th to stop the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) from enforcing its mandate to treat the nuts either with steam-heat or propylene oxide.

Almonds, which contain large quantities of protein, manganese (helping convert fat to energy) and Vitamin E (a superb antioxidant), are also high in magnesium (for bones), tryptophan (for mood and sleep), copper, Vitamin B2 for growth, and phosphorus – the second most important mineral in the human body, used in everything from cell production to energy. Almonds also lower cholesterol, protect against diabetes and heart disease, and may help reduce and stabilize weight.

But all of these benefits are only derived if the nuts are raw. Steam-heating destroys many of the nutrients, or converts them to a form unusable in the body. Treating nuts with propylene oxide, a toxic fumigant the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recognizes as a carcinogen, keeps the nutrients but adds a level of risk healthy eaters find unacceptable.

Almonds are grown in California but processed at various facilities around the United States. Growers and processors want to stop the treatment of almonds, not only because the treatments affect the nut’s health and safety benefits, but because the treatments are prohibitively expensive – a factor that gives a decided edge to foreign growers, who aren’t required to treat their product.

Growers and processors aren’t the only ones up in arms. Consumers have joined the virtual protest by contacting the USDA to decry not only treatment but the fact that domestic almonds will still wear the label “raw” even when they’re cooked or contaminated. For health food devotees, this designation (raw) is the gold standard for many foods.

I spoke to Barth Anderson, Research and Education Coordinator for the Wedge, a Minneapolis-based grocery and whole foods cooperative. Anderson, who was the impetus behind a 2008 protest, which resulted in more than 500 letters to the USDA giving a resounding thumbs down to the steam-or-fumigate mandate, says:

“Our members especially did not like the idea that fumigated almonds could be called ‘raw.’”

According to Will Fantle, research director at Cornucopia, “The USDA’s raw almond treatment mandate has been economically devastating to many family-scale and organic almond farmers in California.”

The mandate to steam or poison the nuts first went into effect in September of 2007. At that time, the USDA insisted the measure was necessary to protect consumers from tainted food. For all their vigilance over the lowly nut, the USDA has since twice allowed contaminated food to reach grocer’s shelves, first in the spring of this year when the e-coli scare in spinach broke out, then again in June when tomatoes contaminated with salmonella threatened to tank the U.S. tomato industry. No one ever did find the source of the St. Paul strain of salmonella in the most recent warning, though officials were quick to point the finger at jalapeno peppers from Mexico.

Salmonella in almonds is rare. Only two outbreaks have been reported in this century, both at “factory farm” mass growers operating on more than 9,000 acres.

The lawsuit filed yesterday argues that the USDA exceeded its authority in drafting and then enforcing the rule, since that agency’s venue is primarily in the soil aspect of crops, and only secondarily concerned with the appearance and edibility of crops. Moreover, the USDA was never required to attend a full evidentiary hearing when it expanded its oversight, nor did it conduct a producer referendum to gather public input.

Not only are almonds being poisoned, but retailers are not required to inform consumers of the contamination. Allowing steamed almonds – about as nutritionally valuable as straw – to be labeled “raw” is still legal as well.

Consumers are irate. Growers are at the ends of their rope, impacted on one hand by California drought and on the other by foreign imports. Even packagers are questioning the duplicity of allowing foreign-grown nuts to escape the rules while American farmers lose their shirts. The loudest outcry, though, is coming from raw food enthusiasts and vegans, both of whom may get most of their daily requirements for protein from raw nuts.

Studies exploring nutritional impacts following fumigant and steam treatment have yet to be publicly released, but other foods similarly treated show vitamin depletion levels up to 25 percent. A Cornucopia Institute freedom of information request for the documents is still waiting for a response from the USDA, which seems quick to lay down the law but slow to reveal the consequences.

Fantle and the Cornucopia staff note that the court has already assigned a case number to the lawsuit, and are hopeful that a favorable decision will arrive in time to protect the 2009 almond crop.

As a former resident of California who actually bought half an almond tree near Watsonville in 1994 (at the production end), I hope so, too. I’ve long since run out of nuts, except the ones living with me, and I don’t dare buy more.

Disclosure: I don’t currently own stock in any almond grower or producer.

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