With last Friday's announcement that the proposed ban on Gulf Coast raw oysters during the summer months was being put on hold, it looks like the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has come to its senses. But for how long? Following a feasibility study, the FDA could still return with its faulty reasoning, and decide it makes sense to destroy the livelihoods of thousands and become the shellfish dictator when it comes to raw oysters. In Louisiana, 3,500 people are directly employed by the oyster industry, and that doesn't take into account the thousands of restaurants, seafood wholesalers, grocery stores and others that have a stake in the business, which has a $318 million economic impact on the state.
According to the shelved proposal, raw oysters harvested from the Gulf during warm-weather months would require a post-harvesting process to kill the Vibrio vulnificus (VV) bacteria found in seawater. In the United States, the bacteria makes 30 people get sick after eating raw oysters annually, with 15 fatalities. VV normally doesn't affect healthy people, and all of those who have died had a pre-existing condition such as liver disease. In the United States, 750 million pounds of oysters are harvested annually with two-thirds, 500 million pounds, coming from the Gulf Coast, and there is total of more than 1.5 billion servings of the fresh bivalves. Anyone getting sick, or, worse, dying should be addressed, but put it into perspective: 30 illness reports out of 1.5 billion.
That warrants concern, but not the sledgehammer approach the FDA proposed.
The rules would have had a disastrous effect on the Gulf oyster industry. Currently, only 15 percent of Gulf oysters are processed, and Mike Voisin, chairman of the Louisiana Oyster Task Force and a seventh-generation oysterman, estimates it would cost up to $250 million to process them all, which would more than double their price. Many oyster producers are small family companies with few employees; most have nowhere near the capital needed to invest in processing equipment. Such mom and pop operators would be driven out business — and thousands will lose their jobs.
Until the FDA issued its decision, oyster harvesters and distributors thought they were collaborating with the government and educating the public to reduce VV-related deaths. Since 1991, packages of Gulf Coast oysters have contained warnings about VV, and a cooperative program between producers and FDA regulators was making strides. Voisin says increased education, shortening harvest-to-refrigeration time, and other measures led to a 47 percent drop in VV incidences in targeted states in 2005-2006 and a 37 percent decrease in 2007-2008. "I felt stabbed in the back," Voisin said, before Friday's announcement. "In September, [the FDA] is applauding the cooperative program and how well it has worked — oysters are safe year-round as long as you follow the program — and then in October, they dropped a nuclear bomb on the oyster community here in the Gulf."
Louisiana officials united against the FDA proposal. U.S. Sens. Mary Landrieu and David Vitter, along with Congressman Charlie Melancon, introduced legislation to prevent the FDA from using federal funds to enforce the ban. Joined by other Gulf Coast representatives, the three met with FDA officials to voice their opposition to the new rule. During a press conference afterward, Landrieu presented a succinct case for Louisiana oyster farmers. "Any disease caused by food contamination is troubling," she said, "but what we seek here is reasonableness, and what we seek here is an understanding of the power and significance of this industry."
We agree. There are an estimated 87 million cases of food poisoning in the United States every year, with more than 5,000 related deaths. Yes, food must be handled and inspected properly, and the public should be forewarned about potential problems. The federal government should set reasonable standards, but this recent FDA approach to VV and oysters is a glaring example of bureaucratic overkill.
Look at it this way: On rare occasions, swimmers can contract VV from warm coastal waters. Should the FDA ban swimming? That makes as much sense as banning raw oysters. When the FDA sets the parameters for its feasibility study, it should be concerned with preventing a rare illness, and preserving a traditional, centuries-old industry.