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March 13, 2009

Gassy Almonds

First the attack on raw cheese. Then raw milk. And now raw almonds as we learn that the USDA requires that raw almonds, while remaining uncooked, be "pasteurized" using toxic gas. As Jill Richardson put it:
A while back some genius [at the USDA] decided that from now on all U.S. almonds can't be raw. Now, they might SAY "raw almonds" at the store, but they were actually treated either with steam or with a toxic gas (propylene oxide). And I hear that the steam treatment is prohibitively expensive.
A lawsuit brought by almond farmers against the USDA's imposition of this rule was just dismissed (though the farmers intend to appeal the ruling). The USDA is officially obsessed with keeping all raw foods out of consumers' hands. And keep in mind, unlike the peanut tragedy, these almonds are unprocessed and virtually risk-free. It's one more bit of proof that trying to eliminate all risk, rather than reasonable risk, can lead to big-time errors in judgment. The USDA should hire more statisticians as estimating real risk clearly has been thrown out the window - raw almonds represent virtually none. In fact, food science's attack on raw foods helps few entities more than the food processing companies.

Indeed, if many in the food industry had their way, we'd irradiate everything we didn't gas. As Marion Nestle said, "Irradiation is a late-stage techno-fix to a problem that should never have happened in the first place." It, like gassing products that already have a long shelf life, just saves us from having to deal with any of the underlying problems. Let's just disinfect the infected food.

This is also in line with the current fight over the USDA's National Animal Identification System - a system designed to track every food animal in the country from cradle to grave (fascism, it appears, is alive on well on the farm) in the name of tracing the source of disease outbreaks. The Ethicurean breaks it down for you, but suffice it to say that 1) existing ID systems don't seem to do any good and 2) it will put all small livestock owners out of business in favor of, you guessed it, large scale factory farms (aka CAFOs). Here's the perspective from a small farmer.

We're understandably in a "do something" mode on food safety right now. But the only answers we seem to come up with focus on the wrong end of the supply chain. I don't have any real confidence that the vested interests (industrial agriculture, food processors, government regulators) have any willingness to change that.

Photo by tochis used under a CC license


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Anonymous Jon said...

Surprised you didn't read about this in the Shuttle, going back as far as Sept. 2007 (as the editor put it at the time, "The FDA Wants to Gas Your Nuts"). Maybe we need to take a more serious tone?

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