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State Oyster Ban Sticks in Gulf Coast Craw

August 02, 2003|Steve Hymon | Times Staff Writer

Here are the raw facts: California health officials say eating a contaminated oyster from the Gulf Coast during the summer could harm, even kill you.

Southern oystermen think that's a pretty squishy point of view for a state that consumes vast quantities of sushi -- and they are ready to launch an oyster war.

Earlier this year, California health officials took the unprecedented step of banning the sale of untreated Gulf Coast oysters during the summer months, fearing people might get sick or die from eating contaminated shellfish.

Oystermen and women from five states are now threatening to retaliate -- perhaps by banning oyster commerce with California or even by boycotting California produce, wine and cheese.

"I think California is picking on us because we're easy pickings," said Wilbert Collins, a third-generation oysterman in Golden Meadow, La. "They don't stop General Motors from selling cars there. How many people get killed in cars every day?"

Sal Sunseri, vice president of the P&J Oyster Co. in New Orleans, said such squeamishness might be expected from a "liberal, overly sensitive state" not accustomed to "looking at reality."

California officials say health is their concern and cite statistics saying that 330 people across the U.S. have become ill and 174 have died from a bacterium found in oysters in the last 15 years.

Sunseri, Collins and others fear that California will set off a summertime ban on Gulf Coast oysters nationwide.

The cost of all this is uncertain, but officials estimate Louisiana, the largest oyster producer in the Southeast could lose $20 million.

Already, oyster harvesters in the Gulf states say that the California ban has resulted in a glut in their market.

"I'm just leaving them in the water," said Collins, who, with some of his fellow harvesters, advocates a counter ban of California products in Louisiana.

This week, at its national convention, the Interstate Shellfish Sanitation Conference is expected to consider sanctions against the Golden State's own oyster industry, worth about $7.5 million annually.

Oyster devotees in California can still eat oysters, just not the Gulf Coast variety.

One possible move would be booting California harvesters from the group, potentially stopping the flow of all oysters in and out of the state.

In the meantime, many elected officials have jumped into the fray, including some members of California's congressional delegation and politicians in the Gulf states.

Marsanne Golsby, press secretary to M.J. "Mike" Foster Jr., the governor of Louisiana, said it seemed strange that California is "being so picky about oysters when they eat so much sushi."

California officials are standing firm. On Thursday, Sen. Barbara Boxer and Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles) sent a letter to the shellfish conference, stating that sanctions against California "would be both unwise and without legal basis."

The squabble over the slimy bivalves has been brewing for years, and in 2001 California health officials and the shellfish sanitation organization agreed on a seven-year plan to better eradicate Vibrio vulnificus, a bacterium that can be found in oysters.

But California officials soon began having second thoughts about the pact.

"When our representatives came back from that meeting, there were already several injuries and deaths that year," said Jim Waddell, chief of the food and drug branch of the Department of Health Services. "We felt we could not continue on."

In April, the department issued its emergency order, banning the sale of all untreated oysters from Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. Those states produce about 59% of the nation's oyster supply, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Health officials were concerned about the naturally occurring vulnificus, which flourishes in warm ocean water in the summer. The bacterium can cause blood poisoning in people with weak immune systems.

According to the state health department, 75 people in California had become sick after eating the oysters since 1983 and 48 of them died.

Most of the victims had liver problems and, probably because this type of shellfish is popular among Latinos, most were members of that ethnic group. Some survivors were left permanently disabled.

Across the U.S., 330 people have become ill and 174 have died from vulnificus in the last 15 years, according to the state health department.

But this conflict is about more than health risks. To many, it is about taste -- literally.

Many oyster harvesters and consumers see the uncooked oyster as the delicacy's purest form. For other types of oysters, rawness often doesn't matter because they come from cold waters, such as those off the West Coast.

But the warm Gulf waters can encourage bacterial growth.

The results can be painful, even deadly.

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