Lynne Terry at the Oregonian wrote a typically great article today on possible changes in Oregon’s hazelnut industry after it was recently identified as the source of an E. coli O157:H7 outbreak in the midwest.
The E. coli outbreak — the first involving hazelnuts — marks a wake-up call for one of Oregon’s signature industries.
“We have improvements to make and were trying to make them,” said Larry George, a state senator and co-owner of George Packing Co. Inc. in Newberg, a large hazelnut processor and grower. “Our industry is going to get better.”
This is a wake-up call for the industry to think about things they can do to improve food safety,” said William Keene, senior epidemiologist with Oregon Public Health.
Nuts, and legumes such as peanuts, used to be considered low-risk. But almond outbreaks in the early 2000s and especially the peanut-related outbreak in 2009, which sickened more than 700 and killed nine, spurred an FDA crackdown on nuts.
In 2007, the almond industry in California started treating raw almonds with a gas-based pasteurization process to kill bacteria.
No such process is used on hazelnuts, which, like any raw agricultural product, can pick up bacteria off the ground. Then they’re mingled when they’re cleaned and dried. There are 650 hazelnut farms in Oregon but only 20 processors, Owen said.
She said the outbreak will spur the industry to consider tougher safety measures.
“We know that we definitely have to implement whatever we can,” she said. “There’s no option that’s not going to be looked at very seriously.”
After the peanut outbreak, processors began adding an anti-bacterial agent to the wash water. George Packing also used a citrus acid bath to kill bacteria. Larry George says his company needs to add another so-called kill step after the nuts are dried but hes ruled out the fumigation process used by the almond industry.
“It significantly shortens the shelf life,” he said. “And there’s really a lot of push back (from consumers) on treating with these toxic chemicals.”
The outbreak will cost the industry money to ramp up food safety. For George, he could lose a potential contract that was in the works and that could mean a loss of 10 to 20 jobs this summer.
“That will be disappointing for us,” he said. “But overall its good for industries like ours to have scrutiny. It makes us more accountable.”