The Cornucopia Institute has provided us with the following update:
I want to provide a brief update on our visit to Washington, D.C. and our meeting with three high-ranking officials at the USDA to discuss the almond pasteurization matter:
Cornucopia’s Co-director, Mark Kastel, and Eli Penberthy met for more than an hour with the three officials in the office of USDA Undersecretary Bruce Knight. The bulk of their discussion centered on almonds. Interestingly, we learned that half of all the comments coming into the Secretary’s office at this time are on almonds! People across the country are upset with the pasteurization plan and want the ability to again buy raw, untreated, domestically grown almonds. We want to thank and congratulate all our collaborators on helping elicit such a strong response.
As you know, people have been mailing us individually signed proxy letters for us to hand-deliver to Washington. We used this meeting as an opportunity to hand them a stack of well over 1500 letters. It was an impressive moment, and we were told that now all these new contacts will have to be logged in with the thousands of previous public comments received on this issue (more letters continue coming into our offices which we will deliver again to the USDA in the near future-please encourage anyone who has not submitted a proxy yet to download one from the Cornucopia website).
We were asked why there was such a public outcry on this rule with the officials expressing their surprise and amazement at the level of public concern. We explained the diverse desires of consumers, the demands of product manufacturers, and the mounting negative impact of the rule on family farmers and organic farmers who are losing markets and income from the pasteurization plan.
We then offered a compromise proposal for USDA to consider, one that we believe can help resolve this situation. We suggested that USDA support a plan allowing for the sale of untreated American grown almonds with a warning label. The warning label serves two purposes: it allows for continued freedom of choice in the marketplace and it allows marketers the option of continuing to “pasture as” raw almonds.
Having a warning label is by no means our first choice but might be the only politically expedient option at this point in time and a number of growers and handlers that we have spoken to have supported this compromise position.
The warning label approach is something that is already done for other foods sold in the U.S., such as some fresh, unpasteurized fruit juices. We know that FDA would have to be involved with such a labeling action, but we fully believe that if USDA throws its weight behind the proposal (along with the thousands of consumers and commercial interests who would support this) that such an approach would likely gain approval at the FDA.
USDA officials also questioned us on a second and companion solution – a pasteurization exemption for organic almond growers. The organic sector has not been implicated in any of the past contamination problems associated with almonds. Organic growers have their own set of mandatory protocols and best management practices that are employed in their orchards which substantially lower the salmonella contamination risk. An exemption for these growers would greatly diminish the harm that is being caused to these farmers who are losing marketshare to imports. This might be a good fallback compromise position although we are afraid that it will leave many growers and consumers of conventional almonds disadvantaged.
Our proposed solution to the situation was not rejected, but was met with some expression of support. In fact, one of the participants described our meeting as “rather constructive.” We were asked to send the officials a formal letter outlining the specific remedy to the problem, which we have since done.
Clearly for this proposal to gather more support from USDA, it will have to be further discussed and approved of by others at Agency (((you can’t get much higher up than the folks we were talking to and the meeting was sanctioned by Knight))). I will say that I am encouraged by what we heard and how the offer was received.
We are going to ask those of you who have been working with us on this issue to give the process a little more time to play out, perhaps into mid-January before we move onto other steps, primarily legal. We made certain that the officials in this meeting knew that we are prepared to go to court and challenge the almond pasteurization rule over its many and unexpected adverse impacts should this compromise proposal be rejected. We tried to impress upon them that time was of the essence in crafting a compromise before going to court.
But that doesn’t mean we are going to sit around waiting for their decision. We have had lengthy additional talks with attorneys about a possible legal challenge, are continuing to network with other organizations around the country, we are gathering more information from farmers hurt by the rule and from retailers and product manufacturers who are shifting to untreated raw foreign almonds to meet consumer demand. We will also be talking with more members of Congress about this. Most of all, we want to keep the heat turned-up on the USDA and we are encouraging all of you to help with that.
Please continue sharing with us any information, thoughts, and/or questions that you think would be useful in this campaign. I look forward to hearing from you.
PS: Because the negotiations with the USDA are at a critical moment we would
encourage you to reach out to your members, customers and network of friends and family asking them to download one of the proxy letters from the Cornucopia website and mail it back to us-if they have not already done so. I would like to see a steady stream of these letters delivered to the USDA every week or two until we are finished with the negotiations. Together, let’s keep the pressure on.
To download proxy letters go to www.cornucopia.org and go to the Authentic Almond Project link on the left hand navigation column.