Food safety is something that we often take for granted. We expect a safe and plentiful food supply, but don’t always think about all the people and steps necessary to make it happen. Over the past 15 years, California Almonds has emerged as a proactive leader in food safety.
However, there were two defining food safety moments – first in 2001 and again in 2004 – when almonds were associated with Salmonella outbreaks. Prior to this, conventional wisdom held that almonds, and for that matter other nuts and low moisture foods, presented little if any food safety risk since bacteria like Salmonella doesn’t grow in dry foods like nuts. While this remains true, what the almond farmers and processors found out through research was that there is a low-level presence of Salmonella occurring naturally across the whole California farming region where almonds are grown along with many others fruits, nuts and vegetables. The type of soil, growing practices or age of the orchard did not matter. While Salmonella can’t grow on an almond, its presence on almonds could still present a risk unless steps were taken. The findings were really “Ah-ha” moments and made almond farmers and processors question what steps they could take in their production practices to ensure almonds remained a safe food choice.
Inaction was not an option, and after the first outbreak Almond Board of California (ABC) introduced almond-specific Good Agricultural Practices to help farmers control risks in the orchard. However, it was also recognized that to ensure food safety, more needed to be done. This led to aggressive measures against this risk. In 2004, ABC led the almond industry to ask United State Department of Agriculture to require California almonds be pasteurized. In September 2007, the program was formally adopted and put into place. Combined, the food safety program ABC has put in place from orchard to table is held up as a prime example in the produce industry.
Across the country, farmers, food processors, grocery stores and restaurants will continue to educate employees, update infrastructure and use the best technology to ensure food safety, and comply with the federal Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) that was signed into law in 2011. It differs from past legislation with a focus on prevention instead of responding to illnesses. The California Almond community is ahead of the curve in implementing a mandatory treatment program that helps ensure a plentiful supply of safe and fresh almonds.