In June 2016 an image macro became newly popular (likely due to a concurrent cancer conspiracy rumor) on social media, holding that the bitter almond tree had been banned across the United States since 1995 because it contains high levels of the cancer-fighting vitamin B17 (also known as Laetrile):
The claim was an old and deceptively multi-layered one, asserting that the bitter almond tree had been banned across the United States, that the ban was enacted in a particular year (1995), that the banned substance contained levels of Vitamin B17 sufficient to prevent and treat cancer, and that the unspecified powers that be explicitly and unquestionably banned the plant solely because it could save people's lives by fighting cancer.
First at issue is whether bitter almond trees have been banned in the U.S. (by the Food and Drug Administration or any other agency) since 1995. We found no evidence corroborating that claim outside its widespread repetition. A 2002 Los Angeles Times item referenced that rumor and concluded by stating that the FDA had only prohibited the marketing of bitter almond products for "unrestricted use":
Paul Schrade ... fell in love with [the bitter almond's] powerful, unique flavor, which gives marzipan and almond milk their characteristic taste. Even after he was told that raw bitter almonds contained a form of cyanide and were illegal in the Unites States, Schrade was fascinated.
In the United States, the lack of clear information about bitter almonds' legal status has squelched their cultivation, trade and use. No stores regularly stock bitter almonds, so cooks seeking them have had to rely, like Woods, on seedling trees growing wild along streams, roads and railroad tracks.
Over the years, Schrade made dozens of inquiries to federal and state health authorities about the legality of bitter almonds, but never received a definitive answer. Recently, however, a friend steered him to a Food and Drug Administration Web site that states, "Because of their toxicity, bitter almonds may not be marketed in the United States for unrestricted use." The agency's regulations do, however, allow almond paste and extract manufacturers to use the nuts as long as their products do not contain more than minute, safe levels of hydrocyanic acid.
The FDA clarified the agency's position recently, saying that it would allow bitter almonds to be shipped interstate to professional chefs and bakers, as long as their dishes were cooked to be nontoxic. But the agency said it would take "appropriate action" against vendors found to be selling bitter almonds to the public in such a way that they could easily be confused with regular almonds. These actions might include issuing a warning, or seizing the product.
That article also noted that California's Department of Health Services (not a federal agency) regulates the cultivation and sale of bitter almonds within the state, and that both are allowed (with some caveats):
The FDA regulates interstate commerce in foodstuffs, but bitter almonds grown and sold within California fall under the jurisdiction of the state's Department of Health Services, which takes a less restrictive approach to retail sales. James Waddell, acting chief of the department's Food and Drug Branch, says that the agency has no specific regulation covering bitter almonds, but that the nuts could be sold in accordance with its rule for bitter apricot kernels, which requires packages to bear labeling stating: "may be toxic; very low quantities may cause reactions."
The upshot is, California growers and vendors are permitted to sell properly labeled packages of bitter almonds to California consumers.
This is good news to Rusty Hall ... who grows both sweet and bitter almonds, which he sells at farmers markets and by mail order ... It's not hard to find bitter almond trees in local orchards, he added, but tough to convince a processor to hull and shell the nuts: California sweet almond growers, who harvested 525,000 acres last year, regard bitter almonds as contaminants. Therefore, said Hall, he'd have to wait until the end of the season to pick and process his bitter almonds separately.
In fact, the rumor that bitter almond trees have been banned (rather than any actual governmental ban on them) appears to be more of a hindrance to the growth and availability of them than any real legal prohibition does:
Because of the almond industry's fear of bitter nuts, it seemed impossible that anyone would dare to grow them commercially in California. But a little more than a year ago, Schrade announced triumphantly that he had found such a source: Thomas Vetsch, a Swiss American grower from Bakersfield, had a small planting of 3-year-old bitter almond trees, which were just starting to bear, as a sideline to his 1,200 acres of sweet almonds ... Vetsch and his wife, Kim, had fallen in love under an almond tree, he said. The almond project was their dream. In addition to selling bulk almonds commercially, they have a smaller venture, Mandelin, that manufactures almond pastes. A perfectionist, he had originally planted some bitter almonds so as to be able to control all the ingredients for the pastes, normally made with imported oil of bitter almond.
But when he was asked to show a visitor his bitter almond trees, his expression darkened. At a recent almond industry conference, rumors that someone in Kern County was growing bitter almonds had caused a sensation. Soon thereafter, Vetsch had fired up the chain saws.
That interest in bitter almonds is centered in California is unsurprising, as 82% of all almonds consumed around the world are grown in this state. We contacted the Almond Board of California for clarification about the ostensibly murky status of bitter almond trees, and that agricultural trade group affirmed that bitter almond trees continue to grow in the state of California (albeit largely ornamentally rather than commercially):
In short, in California all almond trees growing in commercial orchards produce “sweet” varieties of almonds. The sweet or bitter flavor of an almond variety depends on the genetics of the parent tree in the orchard. A “sweet” almond tree produces sweet almonds. A “bitter” almond tree produces bitter almonds, which are extremely bitter! Bitter almond trees are sometimes planted as ornamental trees in home gardens in California. In other parts of the world, bitter almond trees are more common and are harvested commercially. Bitter almonds are used mainly in the production of almond pastes and almond flavor extracts. The retail sale of bitter almonds is illegal in the U.S.; almond snack products sold at retail would all be sweet varieties.
What the FDA has targeted is not bitter almond trees themselves, but those who use its derivative products to peddle Laetrile to cancer patients, as a 2004 agency press release explained:
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has announced the outcome of its investigative efforts by the Office of Criminal Investigations, conducted jointly with the United States Attorney's Office (USAO) for the Eastern District of New York and the New York Division of the United States Postal Inspection Service (USPIS), to bring to justice a businessman who had victimized cancer patients by heavily advertising and selling Laetrile, a highly toxic product that has not shown any effect on treating cancer.
Jason Vale, president of the New York-based Christian Brothers Contracting Corp., was sentenced on June 18, 2004 to 63 months in prison and 3 years of supervised release by a United States District Court in the Eastern District of New York.
"There is no scientific evidence that Laetrile offers anything but false hope to cancer patients, some of whom have used it instead of conventional treatment until it was too late for that treatment to be effective," said Dr. Lester M. Crawford, Acting FDA Commissioner. "This sentence sends a strong message that we will not tolerate marketing of bogus medicines."
Following the investigation by FDA, the USAO, and the USPIS, the U.S. District Court for Eastern District of New York placed Vale's illegal sales and promotion of Laetrile — also known as amygdalin, "Vitamin B-17", or apricot pits — under injunction in April 2000. Defying the court order, Vale set up a shell corporation in Arizona, and continued to ship the product from the basement of his own home to customers passed on to him by his New York firm. For these activities, Vale was found guilty 11 months ago of three counts of criminal contempt, and ordered to be held without bail pending his sentencing.
Last week, the court also found that Vale, who had made at least $500,000 from his illegal sales of Laetrile, had committed fraud in his marketing of Laetrile. In addition, Vale defrauded the U.S. government by claiming that he qualified for Legal Aid. As a result, Vale was ordered to reimburse the government $31,000 for the costs of his appointed defense attorney.
Coincidentally, the rumor that the FDA had "banned bitter almond trees" expressly because "they contain an [anti-cancer compound]" cropped up around the same time that particular crackdown occurred. As as the FDA's press release made quite clear, the compound issue of toxicity and false information about cancer treatments and cures were their issues of concern. In the 2004 release, the FDA highlighted instances wherein cancer patients had relied on Laetrile to a point where their illnesses were no longer treatable, and prosecution of those peddling the substance were aimed at preventing poisoning and ensuring cancer patients weren't duped into purchasing ineffective supplements. The National Cancer Institute similarly holds that "Laetrile has shown little anticancer effect in laboratory studies, animal studies, or human studies," and as far back as 1981 researchers noted that:
Despite the promoters' contrary claims, laetrile must be one of the most thoroughly studied compounds never to have qualified for FDA approval for human investigation under the provisions of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. In 23 different animal tumor models, laetrile has consistently failed to demonstrate any reproducible benefit. These represent all of the standard animal tumor systems and many of these studies have been carried out with extraordinary meticulousness. All currently recognized anticancer drugs have shown effectiveness in at least some of these models ... it would implicitly seem [laetrile proponents] agree laetrile cannot be shown to be effective in animal studies.
The goverment's enacting a nation-wide ban on an agricultural product simply because its derivatives could be useful in preventing or fighting cancer makes no sense whatsoever outside of alternative medicine conspiracy circles who regularly assert that a power "cancer industry" suppresses cancer cures from reaching the public in order to generate more profits for those involved in current forms of cancer diagnosis and treatment. If the U.S. had outlawed bitter almonds solely because of their efficacy in treating cancer, then we would be seeing streams of American cancer patients heading for foreign countries with no such regulation to receive treatment, but we don't. Laetrile has long since been exposed as a quack cure, not a legitimate cancer treatment.
On 1 July 2016, an FDA representative responded to our inquiry and confirmed that agency doesn't have the authority to "outlaw" vegetation of any description from growing inside the United States. The scope of their regulatory practice pertains solely to foods, drugs, and the manner in which substances are marketed, with a 2014 voluntary recall of organic raw almonds (for elevated content of naturally-occurring hydrogen cyanide) serving as an example of the jurisdiction the FDA exercises with respect to food safety.
It is neither true that the FDA has banned bitter almond trees nor suppressed use of the fruit they yield. Bitter almond trees are grown agriculturally in California, and although the sale of their seeds is somewhat restricted, that restriction is aimed at both preventing the peddling of an ineffective derivative to cancer patients and to protect consumers from ingesting high levels of toxic hydrocyanic acid.