A federal effort to ban the sale of raw oysters harvested during the warm months along the Gulf Coast has kicked up a hurricane of opposition from oystermen and members of Congress.
Gardiner Harris, NY Times, Nov 11, 2009
A federal effort to ban the sale of raw oysters harvested during the warm months along the Gulf Coast has kicked up a hurricane of opposition from oystermen and members of Congress and threatened to derail a signature food-safety initiative by the Obama administration.
At issue is how far the federal government should go to save the lives of 15 people each year who die from eating contaminated raw oysters.
A top official at the Food and Drug Administration announced last month that the agency would ban as of 2011 the sale of raw oysters harvested from the Gulf Coast during the warm water months because they are the source for nearly all the deaths associated with raw oysters each year. The agency said processes like freezing and pasteurization that make the oysters safer are available and do little to alter the taste of oysters.
But oystermen and some restaurant owners say the difference in taste between raw and processed oysters is so profound that, were the rule to go into effect, the Gulf Coast oyster industry would be irreparably harmed and a cultural institution destroyed.
Legislation has been introduced in both the House and Senate to block the agency’s action.
George Strait, an agency spokesman, said that despite a series of meetings with legislators and industry representatives, the agency had not retreated.
In recent years, the Gulf Coast oyster industry has underwritten educational campaigns and expanded the use of refrigeration, but the efforts have done little to prevent illnesses.
“What the F.D.A. supports are feasible and innovative solutions to protect the public health that are workable and reasonable for the region,” Mr. Strait said.
Robin Winchell, a spokeswoman for Representative Charlie Melancon, a Democrat from Louisiana, said the agency’s action “is going to be devastating for the Gulf Coast oyster industry.”
Eating shellfish raw is risky since they can be infected with both viral and bacterial contaminants. The bacteria Vibrio vulnificus is commonly present in oysters, but warm water can lead the bacteria to grow rapidly, so the riskiest oysters come from the Gulf of Mexico during the summer months.
Most people can eat raw oysters contaminated with vibrio without problem. Those with compromised immune systems some of whom do not even know they have health issues are at gravest risk.
Two-thirds of the nation’s oysters are harvested from the Gulf Coast and about 40 percent of them are harvested during warm months. Half of Gulf Coast oysters are eaten raw, but they are largely eaten in the South. Many upscale seafood restaurants north of the Mason-Dixon line refuse to carry Gulf Coast oysters.
On opposite sides of the battle are Tommy Ward and Jennie Bourgeois. Mr. Ward’s family has been harvesting oysters from the Gulf of Mexico since the 1920s. The owner of Buddy Ward & Sons Seafood, he has oyster leases, shrimp boats in his hometown of Apalachicola, Fla. He sells his oysters raw and unprocessed which is how his customers like them, he said.
“The last time I looked, I lived in America,” Mr. Ward said. “And 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.”
Ms. Bourgeois is Cajun, and her father, James Sartwell, had been eating raw oysters all of his life. Two years ago, he fell ill after eating raw oysters on his 60th birthday at an upscale restaurant near Baton Rouge, La.
His illness, Vibrio vulnificus, blackened and blistered his skin so badly that nurses wrapped his legs and arms in gauze. He suffered terribly before he died, as most victims of the illness do.
“They know that in 2010, 15 people will die like my father did even though there’s a surefire way to prevent that?” Ms. Bourgeois asked. “I can’t believe that’s not illegal. Of course the F.D.A. should step in.”
Some Gulf Coast oyster producers process their oysters either by freezing, pressuring, irradiating or slightly cooking them to kill the bacteria. Among them is AmeriPure Oyster Company based in Franklin, La., which sells over 20 millions oysters annually that have been bathed in water heated to 126 degrees.
Processing kills the oysters but not their taste, said Pat Fahey, AmeriPure’s co-owner.
“We believe this is the future of the Gulf Coast oyster industry,” Mr. Fahey said.
But Marie Parque, owner of the Pearl Restaurant and Oyster Bar in New Orleans, said processed oysters “are tougher, chewier.”
“People won’t eat them,” she said. “Raw oysters are an important part of the culture here, and we’ll never get used to the idea in New Orleans of doing without them.”
Oystermen and restaurateurs in the North are also concerned about the new rule because they fear that the F.D.A. will expand the restrictions to include them.
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