Almond industry seeks exemption from food safety ruleMODESTO, Calif. — The Food and Drug Administration has proposed exempting a handful of produce items typically not consumed raw from the Food Safety Modernization Act.

California almond industry officials said they believe they should be included among those since a federal marketing order requires that nearly all shelled almonds sold must first undergo an approved kill step.

As proposed, peanuts and all tree nuts would fall under the FSMA’s produce rule, said Julie Adams, vice president of global technology and regulatory affairs for the Modesto-based Almond Board of California.

The FSMA also classifies huller-shellers as a food facility, which means they would have to comply with a complex set of regulations.

But she said they fall into a gray area. The industry considers huller-shellers part of a farming operation and therefore believed they should come under grower rules.

After extensive review, the board submitted its comments on behalf of the industry to the FDA before the Nov. 22 comment period deadline.

Adams updated growers, huller-shellers and other industry members who attended Blue Diamond Growers’ annual huller-sheller breakfast, Nov. 20, in Modesto.

When almonds are harvested, the hard shell is still covered with a fuzzy hull. Hullers must first remove the fuzzy covering before the nuts can be shelled and the nut meats removed.

Adams said huller-shellers really are just an extension of growers’ field operations since they remove orchard debris and clean up the crop before it moves to a handler, also considered a processing facility.

But the FDA doesn’t see it that way.

“At the federal food safety level, huller-shellers are covered,” she said. “Anything that is not a farm is covered by the food facility regulations.

“At the huller-sheller level, the product is not going directly into the consumer channel. It doesn’t change the raw nature of the almond.”

The state’s 6,500 almond growers already fall under voluntary commodity-specific good agricultural practices developed in 2004 with input from university, extension and other food safety experts.

At the same time, state and federal regulations require that the state’s 200 huller-shellers follow good manufacturing practices.

Since 2007, almond handlers have been required to use a process that provides at least a four-log reduction of salmonella bacteria. In other words, the process must decrease bacteria by a factor of 10,000. This can include roasting, blanching or pasteurization.

Only small-scale growers who gross less than $25,000 annually and grow only for their own consumption or for sales at roadside stands are exempt.

“This provides an equivalent set of procedures that also provides the level of consumer protection that the FDA is concerned about,” Adams said. “FSMA doesn’t recognize what’s happening here.”

The pasteurization requirement was an amendment to the federal almond marketing order the industry backed after two salmonella outbreaks were tied to raw almonds in 2003 and 2004.