I am indebted to my friend the LA Hobo (@thelahobo on Twitter) for drawing my attention to a recent action by the FDA ordering the recall of organic almonds on sale in Whole Foods stores in the United States.
The presence of cyanide in some types of almond is something that is well known, and the dangers of almonds are part of folk wisdom that probably goes back to pre-history. Almonds come in sweet and bitter forms – and the cyanide is found in the bitter ones. In fact the sweet form is a single gene mutation that is rare in the wild but which has been selected for by farmers over the years.
Almond cultivation for the oil used to be big business in medieval Europe. There were large almond plantations in the Palatinate area of the upper Rhine. This is now part of Germany but was an independent state which spoke a variation of German that is now extinct called Allemanisch. The oil was mainly used for lubrication and I have a pet theory that it was extracted from bitter rather than sweet almonds. If you aren’t going to eat the oil, but you are going to spread it on wheels and surfaces the presence of the cyanide would be an advantage as it would act as a preservative.
I can’t be sure because the almond trees were completely destroyed by Louis XIV of France as part of a campaign of economic warfare against his enemies. This also had an unexpected effect. The farmers deprived of their income fled across the Atlantic to America, where they became the Pennsylvania Dutch. One branch of them were the Amish who continue to speak the language they brought with them.
Bitter almonds do have other uses, including flavouring the amaretti biscuits which are popular here in the UK at Christmas, and I think all year round in Italy where they come from. They are also sold in health food shops and other specialist outlets. Like most things, they are quite safe if you know what you are doing. I think there is quite a good case for limiting the sale of some things to smaller retailers who understand their merchandise. If you are running a supermarket like Whole Foods it is hard to keep track of the numerous snags that can crop up with your stock. There is a limit to how well ‘systems’ and ‘procedures’ can keep you out of trouble. Whole Foods’ policies on personal care hardly inspire confidence.
Speaking personally, I don’t intend to buy anything from Whole Foods. I like organic food as an option but I will get it from people who understand it.