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Still Too Many Raw Oyster Deaths in Gulf States

There’s red tide in Texas, salinity levels in state waters are way off in Mississippi, and Louisiana has fallen behind Washington state in oyster production. To say Gulf oystermen have not had much cause for optimism since the 2010 BP oil spill is to put it lightly.

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Gulf oyster production — at about 15 million pounds in 2010 — is running at its lowest levels in 60 years. Recovery from what has been called the largest environmental disaster is U.S. history is going to take the oyster industry longer and be more of a herky-jerky effort than any snap-back.

Nevertheless, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) wants the federal government to reengage with the Gulf oyster industry over its principal food safety problem — what to do about the potentially deadly Vibrio vulnificus bacteria in raw oysters. 

The GAO recently issued a new report entitled:  “Food Safety: FDA Needs to Reassess Its Approach to Reducing an Illness Caused by Eating Raw Oysters.”  In 66 pages, GAO says FDA should work with the oyster industry to develop a common safety agenda.

In October 2009, FDA gave notice that it was going to require postharvest processing of Gulf oysters during summer months. The outcry from the Gulf was immediate and effective, causing FDA to back off.

The “win” in 2009 went to the Interstate Shellfish Sanitation Conference (ISSC), which includes representatives from each of the five Gulf states, the oyster industry, and the federal government. Some said at the time that it showed FDA couldn’t do an “end-run” around the ISSC.

The GAO report says FDA and the ISSC “do not agree on a common V. vulnificus illness reduction goal.”  FDA and ISSC have since 1984 agreed to “consult on such matters.”

“If FDA and ISSC are not in agreement on the illness reduction goal and strategies to achieve it, it will be difficult for the Gulf Coastal states to move forward to significantly reduce the number of consumption-related V. vulnificus illnesses,” the GAO report says.

Marion Nestle, the public health nutrition professor and book author who writes the daily blog “Food Politics”, said: “My translation: Despite years of warnings and promises that it has no intention of meetings, the Gulf oyster industry has been able to stave off FDA regulations for ten years at the expenses 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,” she added. She notes that California has eliminated oyster-related deaths with postharvest processing requirements imposed in 2003.

The V. vulnificus bacterium occurs naturally in the Gulf of Mexico. Since 2000, there have been about 32 illnesses a year from eating raw or undercooked oysters. About half the cases are fatal.

Dr. Ed Cake, the Mississippi-based marine expert who consults with the oyster industry, said the GAO report falls short in not addressing the impact of the BP oil spill nor recognizing the need to fund a solution.

“One issue that the folks including those in FDA should consider is the explosion of Vibrio vulnificus populations in coastal waters of the Gulf in response to BP’s dispersed and sunken oil, especially in Louisiana, ” Cake says. “If those deposits of sunken oil persist for decades as they have in the case of the 1979 Ixtoc-1 oil spill in Mexico’s Bay of Campeche, then the incidence of oyster-related vibriosis may increase through no fault of the oyster industry.”

Cake called on the federal government to fund an in-shell (cobalt-60) irradiation facility for post-harvest treatment of live oysters. “If officials in that agency (FDA) are really committed to further reduction of the already low-incidence of vibriosis in consumers of raw oysters from the Gulf, then they should welcome an opportunity to fund an irradiation facility in Louisiana,” Cake says.

The Gulf’s popular raw oyster bars and restaurants and retail seafood outlets have long resisted post harvest treatments that might change the taste and texture of one of the world’s oldest delicacies. 

Here what GAO Wants:

Recommendation 1: To better ensure the safety of oysters from the Gulf of Mexico that are sold for raw consumption, the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) should direct the Commissioner of FDA to work with the ISSC to agree on a nationwide goal for reducing the number of V. vulnificus illnesses caused by the consumption of Gulf Coast raw oysters and develop strategies to achieve that goal, recognizing that consumer education and time and temperature controls have not resulted in achievement of the 60 percent V. vulnificus illness rate reduction goal and that the capacity to use postharvest processing on Gulf Coast oysters harvested from April through October that are intended for raw consumption does not currently exist.

Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services

Status: In process

Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

Recommendation 2: To better ensure the safety of oysters from the Gulf of Mexico that are sold for raw consumption, the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) should direct the Commissioner of FDA to work with the ISSC to correct the limitations in the current approach to measuring progress toward the 60 percent V. vulnificus illness rate reduction goal or design and implement a new approach without these limitations.

Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services

Status: In process

Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

Recommendation 3: To better ensure the safety of oysters from the Gulf of Mexico that are sold for raw consumption, the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) should direct the Commissioner of FDA to work with the ISSC to regularly evaluate the effectiveness of V. vulnificus illness reduction strategies, such as consumer education and time and temperature controls, to determine whether they are successful and should be continued or are ineffective and should be stopped.

Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services

Status: In process

Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

Recommendation 4: To better ensure the safety of oysters from the Gulf of Mexico that are sold for raw consumption, the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) should direct the Commissioner of FDA to work with the ISSC to conduct further study of the six issues of concern we identified regarding the FDA-commissioned Research Triangle Institute International (RTI) report’s economic analysis to ensure a more accurate assessment of the feasibility of developing adequate capacity and before FDA and the ISSC move forward with revising the National Shellfish Sanitation Program’s shellfish safety guidelines to provide postharvest processing for oysters harvested from Gulf Coast waters during warmer months and intended for raw consumption.

Agency Affected: Depart
ment of Health and Human Services

Status: In process

Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

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