US: Pistachio growers could gain key self-regulation

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California's pistachio producers could potentially boost research and promotion efforts and do more to combat disease, under Agriculture Department recommendations made public Tuesday.

The proposed changes would expand how the San Joaquin Valley-based pistachio industry regulates itself. Growers from Arizona and New Mexico would be folded into an existing marketing order, a grower-run organization that would gain new powers under the proposal.

"We're going to reduce the risk of a food safety crisis," said Bob Klein, manager of the Fresno-based Administrative Committee for Pistachios.

The Agriculture Department proposals largely track a wish list posted by leaders of California's $500 million-a-year pistachio industry. A two-day hearing conducted in Fresno last July laid the foundation for the new rules.

The proposed changes now face a month-long public comment period and subsequent industry vote. The changes would revise rules for the Administrative Committee for Pistachios. The organization is one of many marketing orders governing specific crops throughout California.

Agricultural marketing orders, and the related promotion orders, enable growers and handlers to assess fees, fund advertising and research and, in some cases, set crop standards.

The federal pistachio marketing order began in 2004, though it currently has limited authority. The revisions would authorize a research program, potentially focusing on nutrition and other areas. Research projects would need separate approval.

"It gives us additional flexibility, if some huge problem erupts," Klein said.

The pistachio marketing order also would be authorized to impose minimum quality standards and to combat aflatoxin, toxic fungus whose presence throws a scare into farmers and consumers alike. The new rules give the industry more flexibility to set tougher standards.

Such contamination can wreak havoc on producers. Aflatoxin found in Iranian pistachios in the 1990s helped prompt European buyers to shift more to American pistachios. But earlier this year, traces of salmonella found in a Terra Bella pistachio processing plant sparked a nationwide recall of the nut.

Agriculture Department officials said that expanding the marketing order to include New Mexico and Arizona would protect California producers as well by ensuring uniformly high safety standards.

"An aflatoxin incident in any one commercial producing area could adversely affect other commercial producing areas," the Agriculture Department stated.

The Agriculture Department added that the revised rules would allow the pistachio marketing board to impose specific new quality standards "if circumstances warrant." The industry currently assesses fees and maintains a separate California Pistachio Research Board under state law.

Though pistachios are grown in 32 California counties, the southern San Joaquin Valley dominates the field. Half of all the state's pistachios are grown in Kern County, while Madera, Kings, Tulare and Fresno counties account for most of the rest.

All told, pistachio orchards span some 177,000 acres in California. Arizona is second in the nation, with 2,281 acres while New Mexico has only about 400 acres. Klein said he didn't expect any immediate assessment increases.


Publication date: 5/6/2009



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