Friday, November 13, 2009

FDA to crack down on fresh oysters

It's not everywhere that the newspaper runs a headline like this one.

But as the Federal Department threatens to sterilize oysters, the region's seafood and restaurant industries have become alarmed.

This, from the Times-Picayune's editorial page:


By Editorial page staff, The Times-Picayune
October 28, 2009, 11:11PM

A Food and Drug Administration decision to impose draconian new rules on oysters harvested from the Gulf of Mexico could wreck Louisiana's $300 million-a-year industry and restrict the diets of raw oyster lovers here and elsewhere for most of the year -- all in a misguided effort to prevent a serious but rare health threat.

The FDA announced guidelines, to go into effect in 2011, that would require all Gulf oysters harvested from April through October to undergo a sterilization process before they can be sold. That could double or even triple the cost of Louisiana oysters for consumers and alter their taste, texture and color, something that could hurt this state's famous cuisine.

The agency is taking the step because of vibrio vulnificus, a bacteria that thrives in warm water and can sicken people with immune system disorders who eat raw oysters. People who suffer from AIDS, cancer, kidney disease and diabetes and those who abuse alcohol are at risk. About 30 people per year become ill from vibrio vulnificus, and half those cases are fatal.

But requiring every single Gulf oyster to be sterilized for seven months of the year -- even those destined for the pot or pan and not the half shell -- isn't reasonable. Labeling and other steps to educate those at risk so that they can avoid raw oysters makes far more sense, and the FDA agreed to that very approach in the late 1990s.

Now, suddenly and without warning, the FDA is ushering in a sweeping change without conducting a study or seeking public comment. The agency doesn't seem to have even considered the devastating impact on Louisiana's oyster industry, which employs 3,500 people and produces a third of all oysters consumed in this country. Currently, post-harvest processing can only handle about 10 percent of total production during the seven targeted months. Small mom-and-pop operations will have a difficult time coming up with the money to buy sterilization equipment by 2011.

Louisiana can set its own rules for oysters consumed within the state and doing so will at least ensure that Louisianians can continue to enjoy unprocessed raw oysters. But that won't help the industry significantly since most of Louisiana's oysters are sold out of state. State officials should push the FDA to reconsider this drastic and unfair step.

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