In raw oyster trade, FDA's safety proposal is tough to swallow
Agency wants Gulf Coast suppliers to zap bacteria

By Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Glistening oysters cradled on beds of ice have provoked a political battle, with fishing industries along the Gulf Coast and their allies in Congress pitted against food safety officials in the Obama administration, who are determined to sanitize raw oysters.

The fight is over whether the government should require that Gulf Coast oysters headed for raw bars around the country first be treated to kill vibrio vulnificus, a bacterium naturally found in oysters harvested from warm waters.

Eager to deliver on their pledge to improve food safety, federal officials say sanitizing oysters is a simple way to save lives. But oystermen, state officials and their representatives on Capitol Hill say the federal government is overreaching and aiming to destroy a gastronomical delight.

Most of the raw oysters eaten in the United States carry vibrio vulnificus, but healthy consumers are unlikely to be affected by it. However, for those with diabetes, liver disease, cancer, AIDS and other chronic conditions, the infection can be deadly. About 30 cases of the infection are traced to Gulf Coast oysters annually, and half of those cases are fatal, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The debate over the mollusks affects not only oyster shacks along the Gulf but raw bars around the country. The Gulf Coast supplies 67 percent of oysters consumed nationwide, and many of those oysters end up in Maryland, Virginia and other places where demand is high and the local supply is down, said Dave Burrage, a fisheries specialist with the Mississippi State University Coastal Research and Extension Center.

The Food and Drug Administration stunned the oyster industry last month when it announced plans to require that oysters harvested from the Gulf between April and October undergo one of several types of processes to kill bacteria before the shellfish can be served raw.

"There's just a very clear public health case," said Michael Taylor, the top food safety official at the FDA. "Vibrio is one of the most horrific infections we know about. Fifteen people a year die from this. It's excruciating. And the people who don't die suffer life-changing injuries. But we can prevent this."

Federal officials, who are emphasizing food safety improvements, point to California as an example. Between 1991 and 2001, 40 people in California died of vibrio infection. In 2003, the state banned raw untreated oysters from the Gulf during warm months and fatalities dropped to zero, Taylor said.

The oyster industry says that antibacterial processing, which is similar to pasteurization, will ruin the taste of raw oysters, triple their cost and place undue burdens on a business that has deep cultural and culinary roots.

"This is unprecedented -- how they're trying to regulate shellfish," said Al Sunseri, co-owner of P&J Oyster of New Orleans, the nation's oldest continuously operating oyster dealer. In the 133 years that Sunseri's family has been selling oysters, it has never been linked to a vibrio illness, he said.

He said the FDA is unfairly targeting oysters. "If they're a public health agency and if they feel they can bring illnesses down, why aren't they requiring fruits and vegetables be irradiated?" he said.

The proposal, which would take effect in 2011, set off a flurry of political action. Last week, Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) filed legislation that would block the FDA from using federal dollars to enforce the policy. A similar bill was filed in the House by Rep. Charlie Melancon (D-La.). On Tuesday, a group of Gulf Coast senators, including Louisiana's Mary Landrieu (D)and David Vitter (R), Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) and Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), plan to meet with Taylor.

And in Louisiana, state officials are talking about defying the federal government. "It's likely that we'll do our own thing," said Alan Levine, Louisiana's secretary of health and hospitals. The FDA's authority extends only to foods that are transported across state lines.

Levine said he thinks the FDA action seems like overkill because of the relatively few fatal cases involving vibrio.

"Almost all of those deaths are people who are immune compromised," Levine said. "I don't understand why shutting down an industry makes sense in the scope of the larger picture."

Darrell Dishon, 40, is not so certain. He tried oysters for the first time at a raw bar in Panama City, Fla., in July, two days before his wedding. He came out of a coma two weeks later, with his legs amputated. Dishon, who is diabetic, said he had no idea that eating raw oysters posed a health risk.

"I just don't want this to happen to someone else," said Dishon, who lives in Lebanon, Ohio. "You sit down for dinner with your family, and the next thing you know you're in a wheelchair for the rest of your life. Or worse."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company