A group of 15 influential Australian food writers were treated to a Valentine’s Day love-in at an exclusive Byron resort last week, courtesy of a macadamia industry facing criticism over widespread use of dangerous chemicals.

The cream of the journalistic crop ate Bangalow pork and macadamia nut pesto at the famous Satiate restaurant and indulged in exquisite degustation at another top dining spot, in between visits to plantations and processing plants.

But the high point of the trip surely was the massage with macadamia nut-infused oils at the beautiful Byron at Byron Resort.

It’s unclear whether the writers were also informed about the recent controversy in the area over corporate macadamia farms using helicopters to spray potentially nasty pesticides during windy conditions, and the resulting calls for greater transparency about what chemical cocktails are used.

The Valentine’s Day Media Massage — 15 minutes head and neck — was part of the Australian Macadamia Society’s preparation for a coming campaign to market the humble nuts, the majority of which come from the region around Byron.

According to the industry’s publicity, Australia leads the world in its “commitment to clean, green production” of the nuts — a claim contested by groups critical of the industry’s reliance on potentially dangerous pesticides.

“The nuts might be clean, but the industry is not green,” says Jo Immig, co-ordinator of the National Toxics Network.  Immig agrees that government surveys find macadamia nuts have no pesticide residues, but it’s the impact of spraying on surrounding environments and communities that is of concern.

A recent publication on agricultural chemicals used in the northern rivers region produced by Immig’s group and the Environment Defenders Office revealed there are almost 30 pesticides registered for use on macadamias, including seven prohibited in Europe, and 10 that may cause harm in humans.

Carbendazim is associated with male infertility and birth defects in laboratory animals while Paraquat is suspected of damaging the hormone system, and is currently under a cloud because of links with Parkinson’s disease. And then there’s endosulfan, so poisonous it’s now deregistered in Australia, though can still legally be sprayed for another 18 months.

“It’s laughable to make the clean and green claim when the industry is still using dangerous chemicals which are banned in other countries,” says Immig.

Chief executive of the Australian Macadamia Society Jolyon Burnett says the industry has reduced the number of chemicals used, and the number of annual sprayings from about 10, to three or four, a chemical load that is “minor compared to most food crops”.  He says the food writers were treated to try and improve their knowledge of macadamia nuts, and increase the number of recipes that feature the nuts.

Late last year, local plantations run by the US-based Hancock Agricultural Investment Group (HAIG) used a helicopter to spray during windy conditions, sparking angry reactions from the neighbouring community, which has since called for routine disclosure of the names of all chemicals to be sprayed.

The incident also provoked claims from the Environmental Defender’s Officer that there may have been a breach of the law, as neighbours within 150 metres had not given written consent for the aerial spraying — though the government has found no evidence of a breach.

Burnett says the industry’s open to the idea of warning neighbours of the names of chemicals to be sprayed, though HAIG did not return Crikey’s call.

According to its website, the US-based Hancock has invested here because the “role of government in Australian agriculture is limited”, and there are “few regulatory constraints on production”.

It will be fascinating to see how oleaginous the food writers’ coverage will be, and whether or not they’ll disclose that Valentine’s Day massage to their readers.