Ag Dept. approves votes for almond and honey groups

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 3, 2008 

WASHINGTON — California’s almond growers and bee-wranglers will soon have a chance to change how they promote their products.

On Monday, the Agriculture Department set in motion two elections that will shape how almonds are labeled, what quality standards may apply and how the honey industry pools money for ads and research.

Alarms are already ringing in some quarters.

“I fear this is going to lead to mass confusion,” cautioned Orin Johnson, a California-based beekeeper.

Almonds and honey each are covered by different but related Agriculture Department programs funded by industry fees and voted upon by participants.

The Almond Board of California, based in Modesto, administers a wide-ranging marketing program that runs ads, conducts studies and sets standards.

The Colorado-based National Honey Board funds ads, promotions and research. In November, for instance, the board sponsored a recipe contest at the City College of San Francisco featuring entries like smoked honey and goat cheese ravioli with braised lamb shank.

But it could disappear under a proposal that will be voted on April 2-16. The honey board that would replace it would be controlled more by packers and importers than by producers.

The current honey board collects about $3.6 million annually from 2,700 honey producers, processors and importers.

The new honey board would collect fees from only about 75 importers and processors. The producers now paying fees would be off the hook, but would also lose some clout.

The current 12-member honey board is dominated by seven producers, who in the past have included Los Banos-based beekeeper Gene Brandi. The new 10-member honey board would only include three producers. The change pleases importers, who note that they pay nearly two-thirds of the total assessments.

Johnson said he expects the processors and importers will win approval of the new honey board, though he added that “no one quite knows” what industry consequences will ensue.

The Almond Board of California isn’t threatened in its upcoming vote March 24 to April 11. Instead, the ballot covers changes that the board hopes will promote more sales.

Almond industry leaders want to set different quality standards for different markets. For instance, tougher aflatoxin testing could be required for almonds shipped to Europe.

“Aflatoxin controls prior to export would be a cost-effective way to build confidence and maintain market share,” almond board official Julie Adams testified at an Agriculture Department hearing conducted in Modesto last year.

The almond board also wants to be able to impose uniform labeling requirements. Spooked by salmonella outbreaks in 2001 and 2004, for instance, the almond board wants to be able to label almonds as pasteurized.

“When you receive a product that has a label on it, you know exactly what the status of that product is,” Livingston almond farmer Doug Wells testified. “So that allows us to, I think, present a better product to those markets.”

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