Processing Safe Product
Consumers around the world enjoy a consistently high-quality product in California Almonds. The industry’s quality control programs have played a key role in helping almonds to become a “Nut of Choice.” Consumers expect safe food, and this section will provide tips and resources to help maintain and exceed those consumer expectations.
The California Almond industry is committed to producing a safe, high-quality product. The Almond Board of California’s Almond Quality and Food Safety Committee examines issues affecting quality and safety, funds quality and safety research, and makes recommendations on how the industry can improve in its efforts to supply safe and nutritious food worldwide.
To assist almond processors in establishing the highest standards of food safety practices, a Good Management Practices (GMPs) guide is available for download. These practices meet the minimum sanitary and processing requirements. The GMPs contained within the guide have been written and organized with reference to the U.S. FDA Good Manufacturing Practices Regulations, Code of Federal Regulations (21 CFR 110).
Stockpiled almonds can be a food safety risk if not properly managed. The combination of the moisture in the crop and the condensation that occurs under tarps favors the growth of Aspergillus mold, which produces aflatoxins.
The orientation and shape of the stockpile can help minimize the risk of Aspergillus mold growth, as can these additional practices:
- Place stockpiles on a firm surface, preferably one that is slightly raised to encourage moisture to run off rather than puddle around the edges.
- Orient the long axis of piles from north to south as much as possible. Condensation and mold growth tend to be worse on the north side of piles when the long axis is oriented from east to west.
- Smooth the tops of the piles to help minimize the concentration of moisture from condensation.
- Use a white-on-black tarp, which is best at minimizing temperature fluctuations that lead to condensation and mold growth. Clear tarps allow the highest temperature fluctuations, but may be used on dry, in-hull product. White is intermediate between clear and white-on-black.
- If piles are stacked too wet, open up the tarps in the daytime, when the relative humidity is lower, and close them at night, when the relative humidity is high.
- Monitor relative humidity (rH) during the storage period, paying particular attention to the outside of piles, where there can be significant temperature fluctuations, condensation on tarps and moisture accumulation. If the total fruit (in-hull almond) moisture is more than 9%, the rH may exceed 65% in the pile, which is the maximum rH acceptable for almond storage.
In addition, stockpiled almonds should be kept in a storage area that is maintained to ensure cleanliness. Monitor regularly to keep pests away from stockpiled almonds.
Additional Stockpile Resources:
One of the leading concerns for the almond industry is the risk of pathogen contamination, particularly for Salmonella spp., which can occur in all stages of production and handling. An effective way to reduce the risk of product contamination within the almond production environment is with the implementation of a Pathogen Environmental Monitoring (PEM) program.
The first of the seven Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) principles states that a hazard analysis must be conducted to assess the food safety hazards that are reasonably likely to occur and that must be controlled in order to produce a safe product. Since history has shown that Salmonella spp. are a reasonably likely food safety hazard, it is critical that an almond facility’s HACCP plan identifies, assesses, and seeks to control and mitigate that risk.
Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) and Critical Control Points (CCPs)
In 1995, the National Advisory Committee on Microbiological Criteria for Foods convened a working group to review the HACCP document from November 1992. Comparing it to the HACCP guidance from the Codex Committee on Food Hygiene, the committee made the HACCP principles more concise; revised and added definitions; included sections on prerequisite programs, education and training, and implementation and maintenance of the HACCP plan; revised and provided a more detailed explanation of the application of HACCP principles; and provided an additional decision tree for identifying critical control points (CCPs).
The HACCP Manual from the Food and Drug Administration is available for more information. Additionally, the Almond Board of California has made available an HACCP form that outlines the seven principles of HACCP. It also provides a sample process flow chart and worksheet, as well as a form to outline a unique HACCP plan. There is also a Sanitation Standard Operating Procedures (SSOP) form available that outlines appropriate steps to take when cleaning equipment.
The health and safety of consumers is the No. 1 priority of the California Almond industry. The Almond Board of California, working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and food safety experts, has established an industry-wide food safety program. Food safety practices begin in the orchard and continue through storage, transportation and processing. Pasteurization is the final step before shipping California Almonds to customers.
There are several pasteurization treatment processes that reduce the level of potential contamination in almonds without diminishing the product’s quality, nutritional value or sensory qualities (taste and crunch). They have all been evaluated and approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), along with a technical review panel.
Oil roasting, dry roasting and blanching. These traditional processes have been shown to provide the required reduction in the level of potential contamination.
Steam processing. A short burst of steam treats the surface of the nutmeat only. This process meets USDA National Organic Program standards, and does not diminish the nutritional value and sensory attributes of almonds.
Propylene oxide (PPO). This is a surface treatment that rapidly dissipates after treatment. It is very effective at reducing potential contamination, and does not alter the nutritional and sensory characteristics of almonds.
Aflatoxins are naturally occurring chemicals produced by certain molds, mainly Aspergillus flavus and A. parasiticus. The main health concern of aflatoxins is their potential carcinogenicity. Chronic exposure to aflatoxins can increase the risk of developing liver cancer.
Aflatoxin-producing molds are common in nature, affecting a number of crops. In almonds, the source of the contamination is from the soil, previously infested almonds (mummy nuts), and navel orangeworm (NOW) or other pests. Spores of the molds can be transferred by NOW and grow on nutmeats that have been damaged. Favorable conditions for mold growth include high moisture content and high temperatures.
Because they are a carcinogen, tolerances for aflatoxins have been established by certain countries to reduce risk of exposure. When almonds are tested in the lab for aflatoxins and are found to have levels above the allowable limits by country, the consignment will have to be reconditioned or rejected, with significant monetary losses to the grower and handler.
The almond industry has programs and procedures in place to minimize aflatoxins at every stage of production — not just in response to sampling, testing and processing, but also focusing on the orchard environment, where aflatoxin contamination begins and where it must be addressed.
Growers can reduce the potential for aflatoxin growth by minimizing navel orangeworm (NOW) damage.
NOW prevention can be accomplished by:
- Winter sanitation. The removal of mummy nuts — those that remain on the tree after harvest — before budswell, on or by Feb. 1. Mummy nuts are the prime harborage of overwintering NOW, and their removal is the most effective control method. After removal, they should be destroyed by March 15.
- Early harvest. When almonds are harvested as soon as possible after they mature and are promptly removed from the orchard, a third generation of egg-laying is avoided.
- Stockpile management. When in-hull almonds are stockpiled, moisture in the almonds combined with hot weather creates a breeding ground for the Aspergillus mold to grow and produce aflatoxins. Following Good Agricultural Practices will help prevent the growth of molds.
- In-season treatment. If winter sanitation and early-harvest guidelines are followed, an in-season treatment for NOW may not be necessary. A harvest sample can help determine if treatments are required.
Complete NOW management guidelines, including treatment options, can be found on the Web at the UC IPM website.
With NOW damage to kernels minimized in the orchard, the California Almond industry can continue to provide high-quality product to all markets, and with increased surveillance for aflatoxin by handlers, key export markets that have tolerances are assured a high-quality product that meets their standards.
Aflatoxins and Market Ramifications
Because they are a carcinogen, tolerances for aflatoxins have been established to reduce risk of exposure. When almonds are tested in the lab for aflatoxins and are found to have levels above the allowable limits, the consignment has to be reprocessed or rejected, with significant monetary losses to the grower and handler.
Voluntary Aflatoxin Sampling Plan (VASP)
One of the largest markets for California Almonds — the European Union (EU) — also has one of the lowest allowable limits for aflatoxin contamination on almonds, currently 10 ppb total, with 8 ppb B1. Increased rejections of California Almond consignments have led to additional import monitoring in the EU. As of Sept. 1, 2007, the EU implemented Special Measures, which called for mandatory testing of California Almonds imported to EU member countries.
When almonds are rejected, significant costs are involved. Industry estimates suggest that each rejected consignment can cost as much as $10,000 for demurrage, warehousing, replacement shipments and other expenses. The costs can climb higher if the almonds must be reprocessed to reduce the level of aflatoxins. It is also possible that the consignment will be destroyed, leading to significant economic impact on both the grower and the handler.
The California Almond industry developed a Voluntary Aflatoxin Sampling Plan (VASP), comparable to EU sampling procedures, so that almonds can be uniformly tested before they are shipped to the EU. These procedures are considered to provide sufficient assurances such that almonds shipped with a VASP certificate are subject to approximately 5% testing upon import into Europe, whereas without a VASP certificate, almonds will be subject to 100% control.
California Almond handlers who ship to the European Union (EU) are required to sign an annual Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the Almond Board of California (ABC). Manufacturers that purchase California Almonds and further process them into product containing a minimum of 20% almonds are also required to sign this MOU with the Almond Board.
Along with a signed current MOU, VASP participants are given a VASP manual and are trained in how to use the eVASP system by ABC staff. See also eVASP: Submitting + Issuing Certificates Best Practices.
USDA-Approved Labs for VASP Program
VASP analyses must be conducted by a USDA-approved laboratory. Only USDA-approved laboratories are authorized to issue a VASP certificate.
The participating labs have been evaluated and approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Marketing Service, Science and Laboratories Program.
Minimizing cross contamination of allergens is an important part of overall food safety and quality. Tree nuts are among the eight most allergenic foods responsible for 90% of food allergies.
Even if an individual is not allergic to almonds, he or she may be allergic to other types of nuts. Therefore, it is very important for handlers to ensure that no other nuts — even in small amounts — are processed with or come in contact with almonds. Whenever possible, other nuts should not be processed in almond plants or with almond-processing equipment unless specific safeguards are in place to prevent cross contamination. For a complete guide to controlling allergens, review the Good Manufacturing Practices Manual’s section on allergens.
Food allergies involve an abnormal response of the immune system to naturally occurring proteins in certain foods that most individuals can eat safely. Due to numerous consumer complaints, a new food labeling law was established in 2006 — the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA).
Under FALCPA, food labels are required to clearly state if the food contains a “major food allergen,” which is identified as any ingredient that contains a protein derived from these eight foods: milk; eggs; fish; crustacean shellfish; tree nuts such as almonds, walnuts and pecans; peanuts; wheat; and soybeans.
Food manufacturers must comply with the law by identifying in plain English on their product labels the food source of any ingredient that is, or contains, protein from those eight foods listed above. FALCPA also requires manufacturers to identify the type of tree nut.
Manufacturers are also responsible for ensuring that food is not misrepresented or misbranded as a result of the presence of undeclared allergens. Handlers and manufacturers must be sure that allergens are not added intentionally to food, but not declared on the label; or may be unintentionally introduced into a food product and consequently not declared on the label. This introduction may be caused by the use of common equipment or other manufacturing processes. Manufacturers must identify and implement controls to prevent potential allergen cross-contact.
Pesticide usage in the U.S. is highly regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). It often takes EPA as long as two years to complete a full review of a new compound, and 18 months to complete the review of new uses for compounds that are already registered.
In the U.S., almonds are only produced in California, which requires additional review and approval of pesticides by the California Department of Pesticide Regulation. In some cases, CDPR requirements are stricter than EPA requirements.
The state of California also requires monthly reports from growers who use pesticides, detailing a list of pesticides applied, to which crops, the number of acres treated, the name of the compounds and the number of pounds applied. However, pesticides can only be applied by a licensed individual.
While pesticide regulations are closely monitored, there is an allowable level of pesticides in or on food, called tolerances in the United States and maximum residue limits (MRLs) globally. Only foods that meet these tolerances can be placed in the market. Globally, some customers are paying careful attention to the types of pesticides used in almond production, as well as the maximum residue limits.
The International Maximum Residue Limit Database provides a list of MRL tolerances by active ingredient and export market. The Almond Board of California provides data and background information to USDA and export markets to ensure pesticides used in almond production are approved for use. ABC also provides similar information to Codex Alimentarius, which sets international standards for food production.