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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 FDA’s estimated 76 million cases of foodborne illness annually, 5,000 result in death, and of those only 15 deaths are attributed to Vv bacteria. That’s 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 #1’s 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).