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Raw feelings in Louisiana over oyster ban

The state's lawmakers say a plan to treat Gulf Coast oysters with antibacterial technology would endanger jobs. The FDA wants to prevent bacterial deaths.

November 11, 2009|Andrew Zajac

WASHINGTON — Louisiana lawmakers Tuesday threatened the Food and Drug Administration with budget consequences if the agency followed through on a plan to ban Gulf Coast oysters harvested during warm weather that are not treated with antibacterial technology.

Industry advocates said that the FDA's plan would imperil 3,500 Gulf Coast oystering jobs by imposing heavy technology costs, and that the 15 annual deaths attributed to eating untreated raw oysters were not excessive considering the volume consumed.

"What we seek here is reasonableness," said Sen. Mary L. Landrieu (D-La.). "A rule like this could have devastating effects [on the industry]. We stand united to oppose it."

Landrieu and other lawmakers spoke at a news conference after a meeting with FDA officials, including principal deputy commissioner Joshua Sharfstein and food safety advisor Michael R. Taylor.

Taylor said Gulf oystermen were trying to back out of a nearly decade-old agreement to switch to widespread antibacterial treatments if a consumer education campaign did not succeed in lowering deaths and illness from the bacterium, Vibrio vulnificus, by 60%. The number of cases has not declined significantly during the last decade, Taylor said.

The FDA treatment requirement would take effect in 2011 and apply to oysters harvested between April and October and intended for raw consumption. That's about 13% of the annual U.S. oyster harvest, the agency estimated.

About 15% of the warm-weather harvest intended for the raw market is already treated to kill the bacterium. California banned the sale of untreated raw Gulf oysters in 2003, after recording 40 deaths linked to Vibrio vulnificus between 1991 and 2001. The state has had no fatalities from the bacterium since the ban went into effect, Taylor said.

Oystermen say treating the mollusks will triple their cost and ruin their taste.

Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) and the Democratic challenger for his seat, Rep. Charlie Mel- ancon, suggested pressuring the FDA through Congress' control of purse strings.

Vitter, who is cosponsor of a bill to deny funding for the FDA antibacterial initiative, vowed to take unspecified action "on FDA funding issues in general" if his legislation failed.

And Melancon said Congress should consider redirecting FDA funding to increase inspections of foreign shipments of crawfish and catfish -- products that compete with Louisiana aquaculture, and which, he complained, "they're not concerning themselves with."

Lawmakers also plan to appeal the FDA's proposal to the White House.

On Tuesday, Melancon downplayed the danger from the bacterium.

"Divide 15 deaths by 50 states . . . it's minuscule," he said. "I think 15 is a pretty reasonable number."

The bacterium tends to sicken people already weakened by diseases such as cancer, diabetes or AIDS.

Industry supporters said that oyster packaging contains an advisory warning people with chronic illness against eating raw oysters.

Taylor said that's not good enough because some people may not know they have a chronic disease and thus are vulnerable.

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azajac@latimes.com

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