In 2001 and 2004, the California almond industry suffered two devastating blows: salmonella outbreaks that resulted in foodborne illness and product recalls. The products implicated in both incidents were raw shelled almonds. Unique in the way they are harvested and processed, almonds are shaken from trees and raked into windrows, which are brought to the processing plant. Harvest and collection exposes the product to whatever is on the orchard ground. Since it is impossible to keep birds and wild animals out of the orchards, the almond industry implemented an aggressive plan to prevent product contamination.
The Almond Board of California upgraded its systems to not only protect consumers, but to protect an industry which produces in excess of one billion pounds of almonds annually.
The Board encouraged growers to adopt good agricultural practices (GAPs) and developed a “Good Agricultural Practices Quick-Start Guide.” This seven-step program includes documentation, employee training, fertilizer and soil amendment practices, water quality and sourcing, orchard floor management, field sanitation and employee hygiene and pest control.
Since both outbreaks were traced to raw products, the Almond Board funded a series of research projects to develop new methodologies to pasteurize raw almonds. The processes had to ensure safety, yet still retain the unique sensory characteristics of the raw product.
To facilitate the evaluation of new technologies, the Board funded research on established heat resistance for the target organism (PT 30 strain of salmonella) and pasteurization processes for polypropylene oxide (PPO). The program includes critical factors for almond temperature, time, and amount of PPO applied to the system. Failure to meet these critical factors means that the product is potentially unsafe and must be placed on hold pending evaluation by a process authority. There are three industrial systems that have this far been approved for pasteurization: FMC’s JSP-1 Almond Surface Pasteurization system, the Ventilex Steam Pasteurizer and the H2O Express Pasteurizer. There are also ongoing projects to evaluate new technologies and establish a non-pathogenic surrogate for salmonella. The Almond Board’s research indicates that approved pasteurization processes do not have an adverse effect on sensory or shelf-life qualities.
On March 30, 2007, the Department of Agriculture published its final rule mandating the pasteurization of California almonds. The industry has until September 1, 2007 to comply. The Almond Board has taken the needed steps to stop product contamination. Now it is up to the industry to implement the latest technologies to keep the food supply safe.