Debate over the U.S Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA’s) proposed policy to reduce a deadly bacteria in raw oysters continues to grab headlines.

In mid-October Michael Taylor, senior advisor to the commissioner of the FDA, announced the agency’s intention to change its policy on raw oysters to require processing in the warm summer months. 

According to the agency, processing oysters when waters are warm and bacterial contamination is high will greatly reduce the risk of  infection from Vibrio vulnificus, a naturally occurring bacterium that is highly fatal.

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New processes like quick freezing or low-dose irradiation could be employed by the industry to comply with the proposal. Federal regulators insist that taste and texture are not affected by these processing techniques.

Fishermen and lawmakers from the Gulf Coast have criticized the proposal, which would go into effect in 2011, saying it will devastate the oyster industry in exchange for little public health benefit–on average, 30 people are sickened and 15 die annually.

The debate over the proposal was stepped up a notch this week with the Make Our Food Safe Coalition’s statement in support of the oyster provision and a Washington Post piece highlighting the widespread opposition in the raw oyster business.

“The lives snuffed out prematurely by contaminated oysters should not be coldly dismissed by the shellfish industry or by their allies in Congress as the ‘cost of doing business,'” said David Plunkett, senior staff attorney at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a member of the food safety coalition working to support the new rules.

“The industry has known for years how to prevent these deaths with readily available post-harvest processing techniques,” added Plunkett.

Those in the oyster business contend that these techniques would triple the cost of doing business, ruin the taste of oysters, and lead to job losses in the industry.

“This is unprecedented–how they’re trying to regulate shellfish,” Al Sunseri, co-owner of P&J Oyster of New Orleans, the nation’s oldest oyster dealer, told the Post.

“Instead of speculating on lost jobs, Gulf Coast communities should expect that companies engaged in treating oysters would expand their business in the Gulf in anticipation of the new rules going into effect,” said Plunkett. “Making Gulf Coast oysters significantly safer will increase consumers’ willingness to buy them, and will benefit all segments of the industry.”

The back and forth over the proposed raw oyster rule has led lawmakers with Gulf Coast ties to take action inside the beltway.

Congressman Charlie Melancon (D-LA) recently sent a letter to the FDA requesting a reversal on the proposed policy, and last week Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) introduced a bill that would prohibit the FDA from using federal funds to enforce the new rules. 

“[Oysters] are not only a Louisiana delicacy, they are part of our heritage and our way of life. The new policy will strike a blow to the heart of Louisiana culture, costing our state jobs and hurting a unique industry,” said Melancon.

A group of Gulf Coast senators met with Taylor on Tuesday to discuss the agency’s proposal.