Does fumigating almonds with a toxic gas make them safer or hazardous to our health?

Posted by
July 21, 2012

Is the forced treatment of California-grown almonds with a probable carcinogen a public safety measure, or a bad regulation that puts consumers at risk, farmers at a disadvantage and gives the California nuts a bad name?

Known as the “almond rule,” or, as a judge dubbed it, the “salmonella rule,” since 2007 it has mandated that almonds grown in California’s 400-mile-long Central Valley area must be “pasteurized” – that is, either steam treated or gassed with the toxic fumigant propylene oxide (PPO) before sale to U.S. consumers. Growers can ask for an exemption for almonds that receive further processing such as roasting, blanching, or other heat treatments.

Since nearly all domestic almonds come from this fertile area in California (said to provide one quarter of America’s food supply), that means that any “raw” almonds you buy, unless they were imported from abroad, have been pasteurized via one of these methods. Which method was used depends on the brand and the preference of the grower (except for organic almonds, which are always steam treated). Farmers can also sell small quantities of truly raw, untreated almonds in quantities of 100 pounds or less at farmers markets and farm stands in California.

Giant almond processing and marketing company Blue Diamond Almonds ®, told Food Identity Theft that while its sliced and slivered almonds are steam “pasteurized,” its whole-nut “natural” line is treated with the toxic PPO gas. Other Blue Diamond Almonds products such as Almond Breeze, Nut Chips and Nut Thins use steam-treated almonds, with any whole “naturals” going to Canada being steamed rather than fumigated.

The rule, which took raw “foodists’” for whom such almonds are a dietary staple and other health-conscious consumers by surprise back in 2007, is still the subject of litigation, with a group of almond growers heading back to court to argue that the U.S. Department of Agriculture overstepped its authority in requiring California central-valley growers to treat their almonds (something not required for imports or almonds grown in any other part of the U.S. for that matter). They’ve also pointed out that California almonds can be exported unpasteurized to all countries other than Canada and Mexico.

Among groups filing a “friend of the court” brief in support of the current case pending in the U.S. Court of Appeals is Citizens for Health and its board chair, Washington, D.C. attorney Jim Turner.

“Either of these treatments makes them useless as raw almonds because they won’t sprout,” Turner noted, adding, “this has essentially destroyed the raw almond market in the U.S.”

Highly nutritious raw almonds, the “friend” brief notes, are “particularly important to a variety of groups, most notably ‘raw foodists’ and vegetarians,” and are acknowledged by many nutritionists to be healthier than cooked almonds. Raw food and vegetarian diets use almonds extensively, and folks in the U.S. who desire truly “raw” almonds are now forced to order them from other countries – all of which is perfectly okay with the USDA.

The “almond rule” fiasco began with some California almonds that were found to be contaminated with salmonella in 2001 and 2004 –  an “extremely rare” occurrence, according to the current court brief. This lead the California Almond Board to consider a mandatory rule requiring the pre-market treatment of almonds, a plan authorized soon afterward by the USDA.

A rule that has something ‘not’ in it for everyone

Although the ruling caused California almond farmers to lose a lucrative market in raw almond sales and raw foodists to lose easy access to a diet staple, the average supermarket almond consumer also has something to be concerned about — the chemical “pasteurization” treatment itself.

That’s because propylene oxide, also used in making polyurethane foams, antifreeze and hydraulic fluid, has been classified as a probable human carcinogen. And while the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) currently allows PPO treatment of almonds, it has also made moves to ban the fumigant twice, and in 1996 seemed on the verge of revoking its “food additive regulation” status.

Changing its tune after protests from the manufacturer of the gas, the EPA permitted the chemical’s status to remain on the books and set an allowable residue level of 150 parts per million. But sometime between then and now, that residue allowance doubled to 300 ppm. And despite the fact that the state of California considers PPO to be a “known carcinogen” growers in that state can release almonds for sale once the PPO levels are down to 300 ppm.

Canada, which did not previously allow PPO use, also set an approved residue level of 300 ppm in 2009 to comply with its “international trade obligations.”

Joan Levin, a retired Chicago attorney and raw ‘foodie’ who has been following the issue carefully since 2007, noted that the “almond rule” was something “none of the raw community knew about” prior to its becoming law. “Really, if there was something so dangerous about raw almonds,” Levine said, “don’t you think ‘we’ would have said something about raw almonds coming in from other countries which can be legally sold here?” By the same token, she asked, “why are we allowing our California growers to ship untreated almonds to our allies abroad?”

Recalling that old Mounds/Almond Joy commercial, “Sometimes you feel like a nut, sometimes you don’t,” perhaps the explanation lies along similar lines: Sometimes the USDA thinks “raw” almonds are safe, sometimes they don’t.