FDA delays implementing untreated oyster ban

Nov. 17
November 17, 2009
Mr. Heath Adam Perkins
November 19, 2009
Nov. 17
November 17, 2009
Mr. Heath Adam Perkins
November 19, 2009

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced Friday it is delaying implementing the ban on untreated Gulf Coast oysters harvested during warm-weather months.

The ban would have taken effect in 2011 and would have prohibited the marketing of Louisiana, Texas and Florida oysters not sterilized against the Vibrio vulnificus bacterium.

Around 15 deaths a year are caused by consuming oysters containing the microorganism, mostly for people with weakened immune systems. The bacterium is active in warmer weather along the Gulf Coast.

The Food and Drug Administration will commission a study on methods to make oyster consumption safer and would consider the effects of the prohibition on the oyster industry, according to a release from U.S. Sen. David Vitter (R-LA).

“This is great news for Louisiana’s oyster producers and for all of us who enjoy fresh gulf oysters,” Vitter said. “Over the past few weeks I repeatedly expressed to the FDA my feelings that this was not an appropriate course of action and I’m glad that they’ve decided to consider another option before moving ahead with these regulations that would’ve had a serious, negative impact on Louisiana’s seafood industry.”

U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA) and Rep. Charlie Melancon (D-Napoleonville), who along with Vitter have strongly opposed the ban, also issued releases Friday applauding the decision. Melancon represents much of coastal Louisiana.

All three attended a meeting concerning the ban held earlier last week between members of Congress from the Gulf Coast area and the Food and Drug Administration.

Representatives from the oyster industry were also at the meeting.

Attendees spoke to the media via a conference call afterward.

“Hundreds of restaurants are engaged in the industry,” Landrieu said. “It could have a devastating effect.”

Vitter and Landrieu, along with other senators, introduced the Gulf Oyster Industry Jobs Protection Act last week, which would prohibit funding to implement the ban.

The bill also requires that any future rules proposed to regulate the seafood industry undergo detailed analysis by Congress.

“They heard the frustration of people in the room,” said Melancon, who introduced the similar Gulf Oyster Protection Act in the U.S. House, though he questioned whether an agency’s funding could be cut off.

Mike Voisin, the CEO of Motivatit Seafoods in Houma who sits on the board of the Louisiana Oyster Task Force, said the oyster industry follows consumer advisory requirements.

“In Louisiana we have a death from vibrio every other year,” Voisin said. “The state does a great job of educating the community.”

Melancon tried to put into context the deaths caused by eating untreated oysters.

“Fifteen is miniscule, not that those lives aren’t important,” he said. “If you take the risk you put yourself in harm’s way.”

Later, he said, “Fifteen deaths a year with over a million servings a year. …Fifteen is a reasonable number.”

Landrieu said the Food and Drug Administration transferred its rules governing egg safety to oysters.

“What is the definition of reasonable?” she said. “Is it no deaths, no illness? Zero tolerance is a hard standard to reach. …It’s like using an atomic bomb to kill a nutria.”

According to Voisin, $125 billion would be required to sterilize all oysters harvested during warm-weather months.

“You don’t want to double, triple the cost of oysters for everybody,” he said.

Both Voisin and Landrieu said the Food and Drug Administration’s ban announcement in October was unexpected.

“The reaction has been so swift,” Landrieu said. “They just came out of left field. They haven’t been discussing it with us.”

Gov. Bobby Jindal wrote a letter to the Food and Drug Administration last week asserting that the state conducts monthly water samplings along the Gulf Coast and collects oyster meat samples.

He stated that Louisiana is moving to require refrigeration within five hours of harvesting for all oysters intended to be eaten on the half shell.

Jindal also said sterilizing the oysters would take a substantial investment, possibly tripling the cost of oysters, and accused the Food and Drug Administration of ignoring the threat to public health posed by imported seafood.