When jars of peanut butter dating back to 2005 were found to be contaminated with salmonella, the manufacturer simply fixed its leaky factory roof and said it was sorry. Not the most comforting response, but at least PB-philes can minimize their health risks by buying brands they trust (though that’s no guarantee) and grinding their own delightful nut butters. Not almond butters, though, or at least not after September 1: In response to two salmonella outbreaks (in 2001 and 2004), the Almond Board of California and the USDA have quietly developed new safety standards for the tree nuts that will require most raw almonds sold on this continent to be doused in carcinogenic motorcycle fuel.

The regulations mandate that (with few exceptions) all raw North American almonds, even those grown organically or sold at farmers’ markets, be sterilized either by quick-steaming or with (far cheaper) chemical treatments. And as the director of LocalHarvest explains in a great newsletter piece, the proposed chemical—propylene oxide, or PPO—was in fact banned by both the National Hot Rod and the American Motorcycle Racing associations, which used the stuff as fuel before declaring it too toxic. The EPA has classified it as a “probable human carcinogen.”

So it’s too nasty for hot-rod racers to breathe but just fine to eat? Awesome. And as these things often go, it’s the small and organic producers who will bear the burden of this high-cost new procedure—even though they’re far less likely to be the culprits of any food-borne illness outbreaks. As the rule stands now, the only way to ensure that your almonds are steamed instead of PPOed is to buy organic (otherwise growers don’t have to tell you how they pasteurize), and those babies are already going for about $15 a pound before the inevitable increases in price this fall. Buying roasted instead of raw almonds won’t make a difference, since the nuts will likely have been pasteurized before roasting (link opens to a PDF file). I don’t want to tempt fate here, but I’d rather have a slim chance of getting a bad tummy ache from a handful of delicious almonds than the risk of forestomach tumors, which sound way more painful.

See more articles