Oysters harvested from the Gulf of Mexico during the warm months of summer have a high risk of being contaminated with deadly Vibrio vulnificus bacteria. Most healthy people don't have to worry about that particular bug, but for those with weakened immune systems, Vibrio is literally a killer. Every summer, like clockwork, a dozen or more Americans with cancer, diabetes, kidney disease, HIV, or alcohol-related liver damage die after eating summer oysters from Gulf Coast states.
If you remember being advised not to eat oysters in months without an 'r' in them, Vibrio is part of the reason why.
It doesn't have to be this way. And thanks to a recent announcement from the Food and Drug Administration, it soon won't be--unless the shellfish industry gets its way.
For eight years under the Bush Administration, the FDA basically outsourced shellfish safety to the industry and the states that host it, by letting a committee called the Interstate Shellfish Sanitation Conference experiment with minimal, and as it turns out, ineffective measures to minimize the danger. And what a failed experiment that turned out to be! During this time, at least 118 died agonizing deaths from septicemia and another 130 survived excruciating illnesses caused by eating untreated oysters. Septicemia, or blood poisoning, is marked by severe skin lesions and fluid-filled blisters. Amputation can be required to prevent death.
All along, several inexpensive technologies have been used by some processors to kill Vibrio in oysters. Just freezing the oysters would do the trick, but more advanced techniques like warm-water pasteurization and hydrostatic pressure are also readily available. Those techniques have minimal or no effect on taste, but result in a totally safe product.
At a recent meeting of the ISSC, Michael Taylor, senior adviser for food safety for FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg, made the announcement that beginning in 2011 the agency will require summer Gulf oysters to undergo one of these post-harvest processing techniques.
As if on cue, though, some Gulf Coast politicians and some in the industry have begun grumbling about the inconvenience of the proposed new regulations. Even before the meeting was over, industry representatives were in conference calls with Members of Congress to strategize on ways to block FDA. They've started a noisy campaign in their communities, raising fears about job losses to get local officials on their side.
But while some oystermen and local officials are complaining, other enterprising companies in the Gulf that process oysters are presumably planning on expanding their businesses, in anticipation of the new rules going into effect And for many years, Costco, Legal Sea Foods (an East Coast restaurant chain), and other companies have made a point of only selling safer oysters--improving their reputations for food safety while simultaneously pleasing and protecting their customers.
FDA officials should, and I believe will, resist pressure coming from the industry and move forward with the shellfish safety plan they announced last month. A dozen or so preventable deaths shouldn't be coldly dismissed as the cost of doing business, when the cost of actually preventing the deaths is so small.