Posted on Thu, November 12, 2009 by Jerusha Klemperer
3 Comments | Categories: Biodiversity, Contaminated Food, Farms and Farming, Policy, Seafood, Take Action,
by intern Alaine Janosy
UPDATE (GOOD NEWS): the FDA has postponed the policy change in order to do more research on feasibility etc. Click here to read their press release.
In 1941, M.F.K. Fisher asked us to consider the oyster in her gastronomical classic and that is just what I have been doing for the past few days. This little mollusk has been dominating headlines due to the proposed Food and Drug Administration (FDA) post-harvest processing requirement for Gulf Coast oysters, set to take effect during the 2011 harvesting season. If this requirement goes into affect, no one will be able to sell or eat raw oysters from the Gulf Coast between April and October every year. This move by the FDA is meant to reduce the number of people sickened by Vibrio vulnificus (Vv) bacteria, which is a naturally occurring bacterium found in all coastal waters.
Vv bacterial infection can occur from consuming raw oysters, clams or mussels but the majority of people infected each year are actually infected by exposing an open wound or sore to seawater that contains the bacteria. The bacteria primarily causes serious illness only in people with weak immune systems or certain health or medical conditions; healthy people are rarely sickened by bacterial exposure. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) considers Vv a rare foodborne disease, which makes sense considering that of the FDAs estimated 76 million cases of foodborne illness annually, 5,000 result in death, and of those only 15 deaths are attributed to Vv bacteria. Thats 0.3% of deaths annually. Considering that five other bacteria, including Salmonella and Listeria, account for over 90% of estimated food-related deaths annually, it is surprising that the FDA would propose implementation of such rigorous regulations over an industry that contributes so insignificantly to foodborne illness on the whole in the United States, and already has mechanisms in place to develop and maintain oyster sanitation rules.
Speaking with Sal Sunseri, owner of P & J Oyster Company of New Orleans, which is the oldest continually operating dealer of oysters in the United States, I was able to get a better sense of how this change in FDA policy would affect the Gulf Coast oyster industry. He told me there are only so many #1s in Louisiana and oysters are one of them, with the Gulf Coast accounting for 66 percent of oyster harvests nationwide. This vital industry accounts for $318 million a year of Louisiana revenue and 3,565 Louisiana residents are employed by the industry. He sees this unjustified and unprecedented move by the FDA as stemming, at least in part, from continual pressure on the FDA from the Center for Science in the Public Interest to establish a regulation requiring oysters harvested from Gulf Coast waters to have non-detectable levels of Vv. Since Vv is naturally present in coastal areas, and in the oysters that live there, the only way to meet this regulation is through post-harvest processing (PHP).
The PHP technology, Sal informed me, has been available on the market for over 10 years, but it has not caught on widely in the industry for a variety of reasons including the prohibitive costs associated with the technology in an industry dominated by small, local operators and the strongly held belief among oyster connoisseurs that PHP results in a change in texture and taste of the oysters. Getting healthy, fresh, flavorful oysters to the consumer is what I am about, Sal said, and to this end his company works to educate people about how to safely enjoy this historical and culturally significant food. For Sal, consumer education investment is a better way to reduce illnesses from Vv than implementing a requirement that would subject oysters to pressure, cold, heat, and/or irradiation, potentially increase the consumer price of oysters two to three times beyond present prices, and cause a severe financial strain on oyster producers.
With this regulation set to only impact those oysters harvested from Gulf Coast waters between the months of April and October, it opens an opportunity for other oyster producing regions to gain market share, since the supply coming out of the Gulf Coast area would be significantly diminished. Richard Karney, shellfish biologist and director of Martha’s Vineyard Shellfish Group, Inc. and a previous board member of the East Coast Shellfish Growers Association, made it clear, however, during our conversation that this would not be the case. The industry as a whole is united on this issue, it is not a question of intra-industry battling, we are all in it together, he said. This sentiment stems from the belief among those in the industry that this move by the FDA is just the first step toward further industry-wide requirements that will discourage the consumption of raw shellfish and eliminate all individual choice in the matter. For those in the industry and many consumers, PHP oysters are an adulterated product that cannot be considered true raw oysters. If the FDA moves to impose nationwide PHP requirements a traditional food item would become unavailable for public consumption.
Recently, the Council of the City of New Orleans adopted a resolution in opposition to the FDAs PHP requirement. Also, Interstate Shellfish Sanitation Conference delegates voted unanimously to recommend that the FDA conduct a full-fledged cost-benefit study, including a consumer acceptance study, prior to any PHP requirement going into effect. According to industry officials, the FDAs assertion that the Gulf has the capacity to process their entire warm-weather harvested product is simply untrue. Even Charlie Melancon, Congressman for the 3rd District of Louisiana, expressed his concerns about this requirement in a letter to Donald Kraemer, Deputy Director of the Office of Food Safety.
Oyster lovers around the country are making their concerns knownsigning petitions and sending letters to Congress to oppose the Gulf Coast oyster ban. Poppy Tooker, Slow Food New Orleans chapter founder, told me, this (move by the FDA) endangers the entire culinary profile of New Orleans. Oysters have long been the bedrock of New Orleans cuisine and proposed PHP requirements will have long-reaching, tragic consequences for oystermen and culinarians alike.