by Marion Nestle
Nov 9 2011

The food politics of–oysters?

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently released a tough report on the FDA’s dispute with the Gulf Coast shellfish harvesting industry about oyster safety: Food Safety: FDA Needs to Reassess Its Approach to Reducing an Illness Caused by Eating Raw Oysters.

To better ensure oyster safety, says GAO, FDA should work with the oyster industry to (in my paraphrase):

  • Agree on a nationwide goal for reducing the number of illnesses caused by the consumption of Gulf Coast raw oysters
  • Develop strategies to achieve that goal
  • Recognize that consumer education and time-and-temperature controls have not worked
  • Recognize that the capacity to use postharvest processing methods does not currently exist.

As I explain in my book, Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety, the FDA for more than a decade has been trying to prevent deaths caused by Vibrio vulnificus bacteria that contaminate raw oysters grown in the Gulf of Mexico.

These “flesh-eating” bacteria proliferate in warm months and are especially deadly; they kill half of the thirty or so people who develop infections from it each year.

In 2001, the oyster industry trade association, the Interstate Shellfish Sanitation Conference (ISSC), promised the FDA that this industry would substantially reduce Vibrio infections in oysters within seven years through a program of voluntary self-regulation and education aimed at high-risk groups.

If this program failed to reduce the infection rate, the ISSC agreed that the FDA could require oysters to be treated after harvesting to kill pathogenic Vibrio.

Postharvest processing involves techniques such as quick freezing, frozen storage, high hydrostatic pressure, mild heat, or low dose gamma irradiation, any of which reduces Vibrio vulnificus to undectable levels.

By most reports, the effect of treatment on the taste and texture of oysters is slight (although raw oyster aficionados might argue otherwise).

The California actions are instructive: In 2003, California refused to allow Gulf Coast oysters from entering the state unless they had undergone postharvest processing.  The result?  Sales of oysters remained the same but oyster-related deaths dropped to zero!

In contrast, states that did not require postharvest processing experienced no change in the number of deaths, meaning that the ISSC program had failed.

Late in 2009, the FDA announced that it intended to issue rules requiring postharvest processing of Gulf Coast oysters in summer months.

But less than a month later, the FDA backed off.  Under protest from Gulf Coast oyster harvesters, state officials, and elected representatives, the FDA agreed to postpone the oyster-processing rules indefinitely.

As the GAO understates the matter,

FDA and the ISSC do not agree on a common V. vulnificus illness reduction goal….If FDA and the ISSC are not in agreement on the illness reduction goal and strategies to achieve it, it will be difficult for the Gulf Coast states to move forward to significantly reduce the number of consumption-related V. vulnificus illnesses.

The GAO report further explains:

the ISSC continues to include California’s results in its illness rate reduction calculation along with Florida, Louisiana, and Texas. Doing so overstates the effectiveness of consumer education and time and temperature controls….

My translation: Despite years of warnings and promises that it has no intention of meeting, the Gulf oyster industry has been able to stave off FDA regulations for ten years at the expense of about 15 preventable deaths a year.

This is yet another example of political pressures blocking the FDA from carrying out its mandated food safety responsibilities.

Let’s hope the GAO report induces Congress to push this industry to get its act in order and the FDA to issue those regulations.


  • Having lived in both New Orleans and Texas, I can say that the Gulf oyster has a special place in my heart. They are inexpensive and unpretentious. The region has a great tradition of oyster cookery so you can enjoy them during the summer. Due to vibrio vulnificus I avoid eating them raw when the weather is warm. Besides, oysters harvested farther north taste better.

  • Anthro

    Why hasn’t consumer education worked? I’m guessing because people “believe” what they choose to believe in the face of any and all objectively obtained, data-driven evidence. A sad human trait. Let REASON prevail or we are a doomed species–ok by me.

  • Roxanne

    What true raw oyster lover eats them between the months of May and September anyway? I love raw oysters, but I have never seen Gulf oysters in my neck of the woods, only those from the North Pacific and North Atlantic.

  • Roxanne

    Marion writes:

    “The California actions are instructive: In 2003, California refused to allow Gulf Coast oysters from entering the state unless they had undergone postharvest processing. The result? Sales of oysters remained the same but oyster-related deaths dropped to zero!”

    Yes, but what kind of oysters were selling? There are more than 15 types of oysters on the market, so saying that the sale of oysters remained the same doesn’t mean much. You’d have to break down sales numbers into types for this to mean anything. Do you have a link for this information? Are you saying that the sale of Gulf oysters remained the same, or the overall sale of oysters in general?

  • Ellen

    When I looked up the ISSC, it wasn’t what I expected from Dr. Nestle’s description of it as a “trade industry association”; it’s made up of representatives from the FDA, state health departments, the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Marine Fisheries Service, academics, and shellfish industry representatives (and government officials and academics far outnumber the industry representatives in their membership and in their executive committee). And from what I can tell, most “industry stakeholders” are pretty small. Oyster fishing in the gulf, by and large, doesn’t seem to be the province of multinational corporations, but of small businesses and independent fishermen/women who gravitated to the job through famliy tradition and a desire to work for themselves. An article I found from 2009 suggested that the Lousiana Restaurant Association led the lobbying charge against the FDA’s proposed rules, not the oyster industry, which sounds about right, since the Gulf oyster industry, composed largely of mom-and-pops, doesn’t seem to have a powerful lobbying organization.

    The best source I could find for their voices was this 2006 oral history compilation from Southern Foodways: Lynn Martina, who owns a small oyster house in Apalachicola, for instance, was apparently worried about the FDA threats even then: “If they come up with one more regulation, we just—we can’t—we can’t face anymore. Now they’re talking about this post-harvest treatment stuff. We have to post-harvest treat oysters and have to sell them frozen, or you’re going to have to heat shuck a certain percentage of your product. Well, I don’t have the money to invest in that equipment.” In the oral histories, government regulations and real estate development seem to get about equal blame from people in Apalachicola who see their independent way of life slipping away for the next generation.

    I wasn’t aware of this issue, so I’m glad Dr. Nestle brought it to our attention. I would never have found that fantastic oral history project if I hadn’t been looking for more information on the politics Gulf oyster industry. One of the other things I found was this 2009 article from Zester Daily, in which a member of the Louisiana Restaurant Association attributed the FDA’s zeal to wipe out this rare infection to pressure from the CSPI:

  • Ellen

    And, yes, it’s very rare– people who die of v. vulcifinis are almost exclusively people with already compromised immune systems or pre-existing liver disease. At 15 people out of the 20 million Americans who eat raw oysters every year, it’s about 10x lower than the percentage of marathon participants (and they’re often young and healthy) who die as a result of participating marathons. If you’re truly zealous about stopping even a tiny number of preventable deaths, marathon organizers would be a more effective target than oyster fishermen.

  • I’m sorry did you say 15 people die every YEAR? I mean, more people probably die from having a hazelnut lodge in their windpipe. While reading the complete works of Shakespeare. In the state of Rhode Island. Why are you even writing about this?