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Editorial

Oysters, or not

The FDA's attempt to regulate raw Gulf Coast oysters didn't sit well in the South, but something needs to be done because people are dying.

November 21, 2009

Every year, about 15 people die after eating raw oysters tainted with a bacterium that has no effect on healthy diners but can be deadly to those with HIV, cancer, liver disease or otherwise compromised immune systems. The deaths are easily preventable. Only a small percentage of oysters have high levels of the bacterium Vibrio vulnificus -- those harvested from the Gulf Coast during the summer months. And processing them with pressure, refrigeration or heat significantly lowers the amount of bacteria, making them safer for consumption. To that end, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration last week announced that it would require summer harvests of Gulf Coast oysters to be processed before sale beginning in 2011.

The agency might as well have outlawed gumbo. Throughout the South, and particularly in Louisiana, where two-thirds of the nation's oysters are harvested, irate legislators, oyster farmers and connoisseurs told the government to back off: If people want to risk their lives for a plate of cold oysters, fresh lemon juice and just a dash of hot sauce, then that's their business. Processing, they said, ruins the taste. More to the point, the FDA's mandate, they said, would jeopardize 3,500 jobs and destroy the livelihood of generations-old family businesses by requiring them to invest in cost-prohibitive technology. Within days, the FDA canceled the ban on untreated oysters. For now.

It was the right move, allowing for a more cooperative and conciliatory approach to determining whether the aims of both sides can be met. There are processing methods, for instance, that hold promise for doing so, such as "offshore relaying," in which harvested oysters are moved to salty waters, where the high salinity kills the bacterium. Now the FDA and other agencies will study its potential.

The FDA also plans to study the economics of processing to help the industry adapt. Although treated oysters may alienate some purists, other diners may be reassured and give raw oysters a shot. Also, markets currently closed to warm-weather Gulf Coast oysters because of the dangers may open.

As for public health, the best case study may be California. In 2003, after 40 deaths over a 10-year period, the state required warm weather Gulf Coast oysters to be processed. Since then, there have been no Vibrio deaths, and some oyster businesses have adapted to the new rules. But one thing is clear: For all the talk of cooperation, the FDA's ultimate goal is to help the industry "transition." Because the one argument the Gulf Coast oyster industry has not successfully made is that the deaths of those 15 people a year don't matter.

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