Oyster ban fails, for now
Food safety officials want to ban the sale of raw oysters harvested from warm water. Oystermen and restaurant owners cry foul. Who is right?
Mon, Nov 16, 2009 at 01:13 PM
Photo: Patrick Semansky/AP
Should food safety officials ban the sale of raw oysters harvested from warm water known to breed bacteria?
The Food and Drug Administration thinks so, but in the face of tough opposition federal officials have backed off from a plan to prevent the sale of oysters taken from the Gulf Coast during warm months, the New York Times reported. Critics of the plan — including oystermen, restaurant owners and local lawmakers — opposed the plan and said it would destroy the taste and culture of the Gulf Coast oyster industry.
The now-scuttled plan gained momentum last month, when the F.D.A. announced it wanted to ban the sale of raw oysters from the Gulf Coast during warm water months because those oysters caused the most deaths linked to raw oysters each year. About two-thirds of the oysters in the United States come from the Gulf Coast, and 40 percent are harvested during warm months. Half are eaten raw, mostly in the South. According to federal officials, at least 15 people die each year from contaminated raw oysters.
But opposition to the proposal was fierce: Oysterman and restaurant owners cried foul, and lawmakers introduced bills in the House and Senate to block the proposed new rule. “We’re glad to see that the F.D.A. has stopped its unilateral action,” said Mike Voisin, a founding member of the Gulf Oyster Industry Council, following the FDA’s decision to delay action on raw oysters. “But traditional raw Gulf Coast oysters must be available to consumers under any future plan.”
The problem with eating raw shellfish is that it can transmit both viruses and bacteria, such as Vibrio vulnificus, which grows rapidly in warm water. Vibrio can cause a person’s skin to blacken and blister, leading to amputation and sometimes death.
With such high stakes, passions ran high. “They know that in 2010, 15 people will die like my father did even though there’s a surefire way to prevent that?” said Jennie Bourgeois, whose father died after eating raw oysters. “I can’t believe that’s not illegal. Of course the F.D.A. should step in.”
Tommy Ward, whose family has been harvesting oysters from the Gulf of Mexico for decades, sharply disagreed. “The last time I looked, I lived in America,” said Ward, who sells oysters raw and unprocessed. “I’d hate to see the government take away my freedom to eat an oyster the way people have been eating them for thousands of years around here.”
But even if the F.D.A. backed off for now, some oyster produces are trying new processes to sanitize the oysters, by freezing, pressuring, irradiating or slightly cooking them to kill bacteria. AmeriPure Oyster Company, which sells 20 million oysters a year, bathes oysters in water heated to 126 degrees, according to co-owner Pat Fahey. “We believe this is the future of the Gulf Coast oyster industry,” Fahey said.