Raw oysters still a health threat, GAO report finds

October 14, 2011

Federal regulators have failed to solve a serious health problem involving raw oysters, which are the most common source of seafood-related death in the country, according to a new report from a government watchdog group.

For about a decade, the Food and Drug Administration has been pushing the shellfish industry to reduce the number of illnesses caused by naturally occurring bacterium found in raw or undercooked Gulf Coast oysters. But these oysters continue to sicken about 32 people on average each year, killing about half of them, said the report from the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress.

Efforts to educate consumers about the dangers have not made a dent in the illness rate, nor has a push to stunt the bacterium’s growth by quickly refrigerating the oysters after they are harvested, the report said. As problems persisted, the FDA ordered the Gulf Coast states, which produce about 60 percent of the nation’s oysters, to eliminate the bacterium using various processing methods. The states, backed by their congressional representatives, resisted.

Now, federal regulators are in limbo, unable to reach agreement on the best way forward with a group of state and industry officials that plays a central role in enforcing shellfish safety guidelines, the GAO report concluded.

“Trying to figure out what to do has been a long and complicated struggle,” said Stephen Secrist, one of the report’s authors. “They’re all trying to balance the desire to produce a safe product with the costs of producing that product.”

At issue is the Vibrio vulnificus bacterium, which thrives during the warm-weather months in Gulf Coast oysters. While the bacterium is unlikely to sicken healthy people, it can infect the bloodstream of those with compromised immune systems and kill them.

In 2001, Alabama, Florida, Louisiana and Texas agreed to try to reduce illnesses mostly through consumer education and better refrigeration practices. Federal and state regulators were aiming to cut illnesses by 40 percent by 2007 and 60 percent by 2009.

If the goals were not met, the Gulf Coast states would have to adopt one or more strategies such as closing oyster harvest areas and adopting post-harvest processing technologies that the industry considers costly, including mild heat treatments and irradiation of the oysters.

By 2009, the states had missed the 60 percent mark by 25 percent. But instead of pressing forward with the alternative strategies, federal regulators allowed the states to adopt more stringent refrigeration practices, the GAO said.

The group of industry and state officials, known as the Interstate Shellfish Sanitation Conference (ISSC), was moving ahead on that front when the FDA changed course in late 2009. Citing improved technology, the agency ordered the states to adopt post-harvesting methods starting this year to eliminate — instead of reduce — raw-oyster-related illnesses.

The industry balked, citing the unilateral nature of the decision. The FDA backed down and agreed to fund an independent study to analyze the economic impact. The study concluded that it would take at least two years before the industry had the capacity to treat all the Gulf Coast oysters that are meant to be eaten raw.

The GAO estimates it can take even longer.

This month, all the stakeholders are scheduled to discuss future action.

But for now, “the FDA and the ISSC have not yet agreed on a new illness reduction goal and the strategies for achieving the goal,” the GAO report concluded.

Dina ElBoghdady covers housing policy for The Washington Post.
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