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a fuel for nuts?

how’s this for taking the joy out of almonds?

‘Safety’ in Overdrive: Pasteurizing Almonds

Most mornings I get up, go downstairs, put on the kettle, and eat a handful of almonds while I wait for the water to boil. I make some toast and some tea. It has always seemed like a pretty tame way to start the day. The Almond Board of California disagrees, and has taken it upon themselves to save me from the danger lurking in my breakfast.

In 2001 and 2004 two outbreaks of salmonella poisoning were traced back to almonds. According to the Center for Disease Control’s documents, a total of 33 people were hospitalized; no one died. (For perspective, the federal government estimates that about 1.4 million people get salmonella poisoning every year, approximately 15,000 of whom are hospitalized.)

For the almond industry, it was undoubtedly a big deal. Millions of pounds of almonds were recalled. The potential for future incidents spelled trouble, and industry leaders were savvy enough to know that another recall could have major long term consequences for a crop they spend millions each year promoting as “the healthiest specialty crop in the world.”

The industry’s federal marketing order, the Almond Board of California (ABC), took action immediately after the 2004 outbreak. Under zero pressure from the public (and about as much input) they voluntarily created, and then asked the USDA to mandate, an action plan that goes into effect on September 1, 2007.

The new protocols require all raw almonds sold in North America to be pasteurized, thereby killing off any wayward bacteria. How? By quick-steaming the nuts, or spraying them with propylene oxide (PPO), a chemical so nasty that it was banned by both the National Hot Rod and American Motorcycle Racing Associations, where it had been used as a fuel before being deemed too dangerous. PPO is also a carcinogen. For these and other reasons, most countries, including the EU, ban imported nuts treated with PPO. (The ABC is actively working to change that.)

I like to avoid ingesting post-harvest fumigants when I can. Especially hot-rod fuel. Trouble is, the almond industry is not going to be advising the public which nuts got the steam treatment and which ones got the PPO. I, for one, would like to know. A little moist hot air is one thing; a cancer causing has-been motorcycle fuel is another.

Now, of course, those who prefer steam can fork over the considerable cash for organic almonds, which in my neighborhood are going for $17.79/pound. Thanks to the national organic standards, those pearls are guaranteed to be PPO-free. But that’s the only way to know you are getting steam-pasteurized nuts.

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