by Marion Nestle
Nov 16 2009

Uh oh. Industry forces FDA to drop oyster safety plan

On November 13, the FDA announced indefinite postponement of rules requiring raw oysters from the Gulf of Mexico to undergo postharvest processing to destroy their content of Vibrio vulnificus, a particularly nasty “flesh-eating” bacterium.  According to accounts in the New York Times and in industry newsletters,  the FDA caved under pressure from the oyster industry and members of Congress representing oyster-harvesting regions in the Gulf.

The FDA has been trying for years to get the oyster industry to clean up its act and use post-harvest technologies to sterilize oysters in order to prevent the 15 or so deaths they cause every year.  The technologies include quick freezing, frozen storage, high hydrostatic pressure, mild heat, and low dose gamma irradiation.  When used, the methods reduce bacteria to undectable levels and deaths from Vibrio vulnificus infections to zero.  As the FDA puts it, “seldom is the evidence on a food safety problem and solution so unambiguous.”

The FDA took action on October 16.  It wrote a letter to the industry announcing the new rules.  It would expect oyster producers to use the techniques, especially on oysters harvested in summer months when bacteria levels are higher.  It also issued a background paper on why the techniques are needed, a fact sheet on oyster hazards, and a Q and A on the new policy.

On October 17, FDA official Michael Taylor gave a speech to the oyster industry outlining the policy.

Oops.  The oyster industry did not take well to the idea and went into organized action.

Now, the proposed rules are history.  As the FDA explains:

Since making its initial announcement, the FDA has heard from Gulf Coast oyster harvesters, state officials, and elected representatives from across the region about the feasibility of implementing post-harvest processing or other equivalent controls by the summer of 2011.  These are legitimate concerns.

It is clear to the FDA from our discussions to date that there is a need to further examine both the process and timing for large and small oyster harvesters to gain access to processing facilities or equivalent controls in order to address this important public health goal.  Therefore, before proceeding, we will conduct an independent study to assess how post-harvest processing or other equivalent controls can be feasibly implemented in the Gulf Coast in the fastest, safest and most economical way.

My interpretation: 15 or more preventable deaths a year, every year, from oyster Vibrio must not be enough to elicit industry responsibility or FDA action.  That the FDA was forced to back down so quickly is not reassuring about this administration’s commitment to food safety.  Make no mistake.  This is a major setback to developing a strong food safety system.

One of the ironies here is that the FDA’s approach to oyster safety mirrored the approach taken by the very same Michael Taylor when he worked for the USDA in the mid-1990s.  Then, the administration backed him up on requiring science-based food safety procedures for meat and poulty producers.  This time, it looks like the administration pulled the rug out from under him and forced the FDA to back down.

Note: Thanks to Mike Taylor, safety rules are in place for meat and poultry.  Unfortunately, the current USDA isn’t enforcing them.  I will have more to say on that point in tomorrow’s post.

Another note: Center for Science in the Public Interest, which has been pushing for oyster safety for years, has organized a protest campaign.  Sign up here.

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  • Anthro

    I’ll take your word for it, but I didn’t realize the oyster market was so important–this may be because I hate oysters and would never eat them anyway. Since I’m sure you are right about this being a setback for the food safety system, I have to ask how one is supposed to believe in our system when it can be so easily manipulated by one or two senators who represent industry over public health. I realize the people need the industry for jobs, but why can’t industry do it’s part to protect workers (citizens)?

  • Kinda torn on this one, to be honest. I lived near Appalachicola for a while, a town built by oysters with streets paved by oyster shells. I ate fresh oysters right off the boats five days a week.

    I wonder if the “processing” is going to destroy the taste, texture and brineyness that we oyster-lovers crave. Will we become like those cheese-smugglers who circumvent U.S. laws re: pasteurization to bring in their European delights?

    Perspective: 15 deaths vs. how many servings of oysters? And what’s the death rate for, say, spinach with e coli contamination?

    Don’t know the answers … just asking the questions.

  • susanne

    Gina, i was wondering the same thing. how could a frozen, irradiated oyster taste anything like a freshly shucked oyster? is this for processed oysters or something?

  • Bob Rheault

    So if I follow your logic, we should be banning peanuts because a few hundred people who are not aware they are allergic die each year… and I suppose we should be forcing all sorts of industries to irradiate and process their food too. Eliminate all risk and protect me from the need to have any personal responsibility for my actions. Usher in the nanny state! Live in a bubble.

    No thanks. I like my oysters raw and fresh. I accept the risks (as minuscule as they are even though I am immune compromised) and I accept responsibility for my actions. As I understand it, most of the Vibrio vulnificus deaths were in immune compromised individuals who knew they should not be eating raw oysters and chose to anyway! They should not be eating any raw foods for that matter. Live for today for to live in a bubble is a slow death.

  • Just because at-risk groups are not listening to the warnings that they shouldn’t consume raw oysters and other raw products doesn’t mean the entire oyster supply should be ruined. 15 deaths in immuno-compromised individuals (who were warned not to eat raw products) out of how many oysters consumed? If the Gulf oyster industry produces 2/3 of the oysters eaten in the US, that’s a lot of oysters, and not much risk. There are probably foods with a higher risk of infection that are less regulated. So now what, is the government going to tell me I can’t eat my steak rare? Sometimes food regulations can go a little too far Marion.

  • Kevin

    So what do you suggest we do about the people who lose limbs and die just from swimming in salt water with open wounds? Do we ban swimming in the Gulf of Mexico, too?

    And a correction. There is no such thing as “the oyster industry.” Thousands of individuals – men and women – spoke out against the proposed ban because they don’t want the FDA, CSPI, or Marion Nestle telling them what they’re allowed to eat.

  • Coincidentally, oyster contamination was one of the culprits in a mysterious sickness in a character on House two weeks ago (it turned out that the character had a rare disorder that reacted with the vibrio in a near-fatal way). I guess the writers over there pay attention to food news or something.

  • I came in to post the same thing as Marisa. Sure, the deaths are preventable, but they are preventable by the people eating the oysters. Any establishment serving raw seafood is required to post notices about the risks of eating raw seafood. And, as some articles on the topic have mentioned, the vast majority of the deaths are people who were already immunocompromised.

    At some point we have to bring personal responsibility into it. If a very tiny percentage of people are getting sick and dying KNOWING their immune systems are compromised and KNOWING that what they’re eating has the potential to make them sick, I don’t see this as a reason to regulate. And I’m speaking as a consumer, not a member of the oyster industry. If it’s a broader health issue where thousands of uninformed consumers are affected, that’s another story, but that is not what this is.

  • K.

    That’s sort of what I was wondering, Gina. Yes, 15 deaths a year could be saved – but at the expense of the food itself? I’m afraid that this is a step in the direction of sanitizing food beyond taste, texture, or recognition as food – towards a foodstuf, and away from a food.

    Not only is there a need for some level of personal accountability and accepted risk-taking, there’s also a need to return to older ways of thinking about foods. It wasn’t that long ago (since it was still common when I was a child, and I’m not *that* old) that people adhered to only eating oysters in months that contained the letter R; the colder months where vibrio was less likely to contaminate the shellfish. Trying to eat oysters year-round is part of the problem here; perhaps we should simply learn to appreciate things in their season, rather than try to extend the season to our whims and desires.

    (And frankly, if we’re talking time, energy, and public battles, I would rather see the FDA go after processing houses and CAFOs than smallscale oyster farming families.)

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  • Nicole

    I usually tend to agree with most of your points, Marion, and I truly believe in this day and age our food shouldn’t be killing us. But as a north-easterner , I also tend to not eat warm water oysters unless I am eating them really close to the place of harvest and I really don’t believe that oysters are a year round food. Not all food is safe all year round. If we want a strong food safety system shouldn’t we be looking at our expectations of food availability??

  • TR

    Consumer education and relying on personal responsibility isnt the answer. If businesses are bringing raw oysters to market there is an implied and eve expresesd warranty that the oytsters are safe to eat even if they aren’t. Even the most informed consumer can be forgiven if they eschew what they know and buy oysters out of season b/c they are there for sale and therefore it is implied that they are safe to eat. So, if the industry wants to be able to harvest and sell raw oysters all year, they should process them in times when there is reason to believe they are at risk. Or, no raw oysters for anyone during those times. I like raw oysters myself and I hate not getting them in the summer but the industry doesnt get any money from me during those times. They’ll just have to find another job since they don’t want to process. I like the idea of high hydrostatic pressure as long as it doesn’t kill the oyster or otherwise destroy the oyster’s ability to keep its shell shut.