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'Raw' almonds may no longer be raw

TODAY food editor Phil Lempert reports on USDA efforts to pasteurize almonds.

The USDA is attempting to require that all almonds grown in California to be sterilized with various pasteurization techniques in response to Salmonella outbreaks in 2001 and 2004 that were traced to raw almonds. All almonds, with two exceptions, would undergo a sterilization process that includes chemicals and/or high-temperature treatments. Organic raw almonds will not be fumigated and undergo only the steam-heat treatment thus they are no longer "raw," and small-scale growers can sell "raw" almonds only direct from farm stands.

The Cornucopia Institute, a Wisconsin-based farm policy research group, is requesting that the FDA reopen the proceeding for public comment as the proposed change was not effectively communicated to the public. In fact, only 18 comments were received on the proposal — all from the almond industry which, unlike consumers, retailers and other organizations concerned with food safety, received a personal letter or fax from the USDA on the proposal and an invitation to comment.

In light of the recent foodborne illnesses involving peanut butter, spinach, lettuce and pet foods there is little doubt that consumers are more concerned about food safety than ever, which certainly offers the USDA a window of opportunity to institute stricter regulations and different technologies to reduce food safety problems. Most food safety issues occur when contaminated water, soil or transportation and handling equipment come into contact with the product. But, according to The Cornucopia Institute, this USDA regulation might well be  ignoring the root causes of food contamination  "dangerous and unsustainable farming practices."

Concerns raised about the proposal include the costs of the chemical and heat treatments (a propylene oxide chamber runs up from $500,000 to $1,250,000 and a roasting line from $1,500,000 to $2,500,000) as well as transportation costs to and from treatment facilities, which would place a heavier burden on small farmers as opposed to big business.

Even more important is that the most common method of sterilizing almonds is by propylene oxide fumigation, which is listed by the International Agency on Cancer Research as a possible carcinogen. It is banned in the European Union, Canada and Mexico, among many others, from being used in the treatment of food for human consumption.

We agree with The Institute's main contention — these almonds which would be labeled "raw" is deceptive to those who wish to buy truly raw, unprocessed almonds. It's time to separate out the technology benefits (or drawbacks) from labeling issues and allow shoppers to be able to trust what’s listed on the package as being “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.”

For more food safety information and tips visit Phil’s website

Phil Lempert is food editor of the TODAY show. He welcomes questions and comments, which can be sent to or by using the mail box below. For more about the latest trends on the supermarket shelves, visit Phil’s Web site at .