Despite Life-Saving Potential, Oystermen Balk at Regulation’s Cost

The oyster industry is fighting the Food and Drug Administration over FDA’s new policy intended to make oyster consumption safer. The FDA said last month that oysters from the Gulf of Mexico harvested during warmer months must be processed to kill the bacteria vibrio vulnificus which can sicken and even kill consumers, especially those with chronic illnesses.

oystersThe oyster industry has trotted out the usual anti-regulatory argument – that the costs associated with product regulation will cripple their industry. According to Washington Post reporter Lyndsey Layton, “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.”

FDA has already addressed the cost concern, and the news is not quite so glum. FDA says processing will cost Gulf oyster harvesters 3-4 cents per oyster. That estimate doesn’t even take into account the potential benefits to the industry. “Those using post-harvest processing are able to obtain higher prices for treated oysters because of increased safety and other quality-related characteristics of treated oysters, thereby improving the value of Gulf Coast oysters,” FDA says.

More importantly, safer oysters may mean more oyster eaters. “The number of consumers of raw oysters may increase as the public understands that the risks associated with Vibrio vulnificus have been largely removed,” FDA says. A 2000-01 Mississippi State University survey found that “Product safety concerns were cited as the reason why 23% of nonconsumers avoided eating oysters and 29% of consumers ate oysters less frequently.” Survey respondents identified oysters as the riskiest type of seafood more so than any other product.

But industry pressure may yet undermine FDA’s efforts. Gulf state lawmakers who care more about the oyster industry than the health of their constituents are on the case: “Last week, Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) filed legislation that would block the FDA from using federal dollars to enforce the policy,” according to the Post. “A similar bill was filed in the House by Rep. Charlie Melancon (D-La.).”

State governments aren’t happy either. “ ‘It's likely that we'll do our own thing,’ said Alan Levine, Louisiana's secretary of health and hospitals.” Real mature.

Then there’s this gem: " ‘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.’ "

The CDC says Gulf oyster-borne vibrio illnesses kill about 15 Americans each year. While that may not be as many as some other public health threats, if the deaths are preventable, shouldn’t we, you know, prevent them?

Fine Print update: "FDA May Delay Oyster Rule after Industry Pressure"

Image by Flicr user flydime, used under a Creative Commons license.

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