Over the weekend Michael Tayor, senior advisor to the commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced the agency’s intention to reformulate its policy on processing raw oysters to reduce Vibrio vulnificus, a naturally occurring bacterium that can be fatal.

Taylor announced that the FDA will change HACCP rules to require post-harvest processing to reduce the bacterium before the Interstate Shellfish Sanitation Conference (ISSC).

Though Taylor commended the shellfish industry for taking certain steps to reduce Vibrio vulnificus infections, such as implementing more effective refrigeration processes and educating consumers who may be especially vulnerable to Vibrio vulnificus to cook their oysters, he noted that those actions hadn’t adequately reduced the number of poisonings.

“Between 2001 and 2008, in spite of the efforts many have made, there has not been a significant decline in the number of cases of Vibrio vulnificus nationwide,” said Taylor.

“We know that this lack of progress is not acceptable to anyone. And so we believe that the time has come for a new approach,” added Taylor.

“Seldom is the evidence on a food safety problem and solution so unambiguous. The tools exist today to prevent people from becoming ill and dying from the Vibrio vulnificus bacterium,” said Taylor. “Oysters that undergo post harvest processing treatment will rarely pose a problem; while those left untreated can have deadly consequences.”

The new rule, which would take effect by the beginning of risk season in 2011, will be a part of the “Fish and Fisher Products Hazards and Controls Guidance, Fourth Edition,” which the agency is still developing.

According to the FDA, Vibrio vulnificus is a naturally occurring bacterium closely related to cholera that is found in warm coastal waters, especially the Gulf of Mexico. 

The bacterium can be highly fatal when it infects the bloodstream. Infection is characterized by fever, chills, decreased blood pressure, as well as blistering and lesions, the illness is fatal about 50 percent of the time, the infection kills about 15 people per year.