FDA To Ban Sale Of Raw Oysters From Gulf Of Mexico

7773_maycoverWell, here comes another topic of conversation—the FDA will ban the sale of raw oysters harvested in the Gulf of Mexico during the summer months starting in 2011. Under the new guidelines, oysters pulled from the Gulf after the summer of 2011 will have to be “pasteurized” (heated with mild heat to kill bacteria) before they are sold (Gold Band Oysters). Louisiana is way ahead of Texas on this front.

Hmm. About 15 people a year die from eating raw oysters infected with Vibrio vulnificus and most of those people had existing conditions such as AIDS, hepatitis, cancer, cirrhosis, diabetes, or kidney disease. It sounds like an easy solution—stay away from summertime oysters if you have any of these conditions, but many people are infected with these life-threatening illnesses and don’t know it until they come in contact with a bad oyster.

In 2003, two people died from eating raw oysters at Rockfish in Dallas. Photographer Nan Coulter and I traveled to the Texas coast and poked around oyster processing plants and talked to fishermen. You can read the whole story here. We talked to people in the seafood industry on both sides of the “pasteurization” argument. The only fact they agreed upon was that anti-bacterial procedures are expensive. No doubt, the Texas seafood industry, which supplies about two-thirds of the oysters to the U. S. market, will feel wronged.

Processing plant near Texas City.
Processing plant near Texas City. (Nan Coulter)

Buried at the bottom of this Associated Press report:

Anita Grove, executive director of the Apalachicola Bay Chamber of Commerce in Florida, said a ban would be crushing. She said oyster harvesters, shuckers, truckers and dealers are “the backbone to our economy. It’s always been that way.”

Yes Anita, it has been that way for a long time. But I’d like to see the identification documents of most of the harvesters, shuckers, and dealers I met in Texas. Most of them were Vietnamese, couldn’t speak English, and they ran from our cameras. I’d also like to see more enforcement of the regulations designed to control where those harvesters are allowed to pull their catch—so many break the rules and fish in closed polluted waters and haul them back to shore on unrefrigerated boats.