Almond prices are soaring ahead of the peak Christmas season, despite a record 1.3 billion pound Californian harvest and concerns over salmonella contamination.

The news comes as retailers such as Julian Graves report growing consumer interest in the nut. "At the moment, almonds represent about 20% of all our nut sales, but we expect this figure will increase as more people become aware of their nutritional benefits," said a spokesman.

The popular blanchable standard unsized nuts were quoted by EU buyers last week at $405/220 kg (£198), up 13% since the start of the season in August. Traders said strong demand and rising costs were pushing up prices, even though California was shipping smaller nuts this year and pasteurising them to avoid a re-run of recent salmonella outbreaks.

"The key California industry will have no problems in marketing the majority of its crop," said a source at Netherlands-based trading company Daarnhouwer. "The big importers are buying like crazy because they know they will find retail buyers."

Almonds still look good value compared with other nuts, he added. But the buoyant market raises the prospect of higher retail prices. "The importer's cost of loading the ships and the shipping costs are rising monthly," said a UK trader.

"Delivery cost to the customer and the importer's profit all have to be added to the free alongside ship price, and packers' costs are sizeable."

A Dutch trader said retail prices were hard to calculate, but should mirror rises in wholesale prices. "The shop price for, say, a 100g or 200g package will be at least two or three times as high as the international market price," he said.

Spanish growers have been less fortunate, with an estimated harvest of 40,000 tonnes compared with 65,000 tonnes last year, helping to boost imports from California.