US: Pistachio proposal could reduce food safety risks

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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 will expand how the Valley-based pistachio industry regulates itself. Growers from Arizona and New Mexico will be folded into an existing marketing order, a grower-run organization which will 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 made public Tuesday largely track a wish list posted by leaders of California's half-a-billion dollar a year pistachio industry. A two-day public hearing conducted in Fresno last July laid the foundation for the new rules.

"I think it benefits the entire industry to make these adjustments," grower Randy Raber testified last year.

The proposed changes, following a month-long public comment period and subsequent industry vote, will revise rules for the Administrative Committee for Pistachios. The Fresno-based 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 latest revisions would authorize a research program, potentially focusing on nutrition and other areas. Specific research projects would still need separate approval.

"It gives us additional flexibility, if some huge problem erupts," Klein said, adding that "we don't anticipate" starting the research program immediately.

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

"Because pistachio producers are less able to adjust to decreased demand and low prices by decreasing production, a lingering food crisis would be catastrophic for pistachio producers," Kern County grower Brian Blackwell testified.

Agriculture Department officials agreed, stating Tuesday that expanding the marketing order to include New Mexico and Arizona will 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 will 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.



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