- The Washington Times - Monday, November 9, 2009

Gulf Coast lawmakers have a message for the administration: Keep your mitts off my raw oysters.

Senators from Louisiana and Florida are seething over plans to sanitize — basically cook — oyster hauls to fight a potentially deadly bacteria found in the Gulf shellfish.

A new Food and Drug Administration rule will ban the sale of fresh, live oysters from the Gulf of Mexico and require they get quick-frozen, heated, pressurized or zapped with gamma irradiation before consumers can take a bite.

The post-harvest processing is intended to wipe out illness from Vibrio vulnificus, a bacteria that grows in oysters and killed 15 people in the United States last year, mostly folks with underlying health conditions such as AIDS, cancer, kidney disease, diabetes or alcohol abuse.

It also would wipe Gulf oysters off the raw-bar menu and erase that on-the-half-shell staple of the seafood industry in Louisiana, Florida and Texas.

“This is government out of control. This is government trying to kill a gnat with a sledgehammer,” Sen. Bill Nelson, Florida Democrat, said in a speech on the Senate floor Thursday. “We are not going to let it happen.”

He teamed up with Democrat Sen. Mary L. Landrieu and Republican Sen. David Vitter, both of Louisiana, to introduce a bill that would block funding for the FDA to implement the rule, which is set to take effect in 2011.

They say a public education campaign warning at-risk consumers about the dangers of eating raw food makes more sense than crippling a thriving seafood industry.

“The FDA has bigger fish to fry,” Ms. Landrieu said. “Imposing burdensome federal regulations that may take away 3,500 much-needed jobs in Louisiana is not the answer.”

She noted that the United States last year had more than 87 million cases of food-related illnesses, 371,000 hospitalizations and 5,700 deaths, compared with 15 deaths from raw oysters eaten by people who were already sick.

Opposition is expected to build on Capitol Hill, where Gulf Coast senators are set to meet this week with FDA officials about the regulation.

A Republican aide said Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican, likely will raise concerns about the raw-oyster ban and consider singing on to the bill to cut funding for it.

The FDA, under fire for recent scares from tainted tomatoes, spinach, beef, peppers and peanut butter, says it is just doing its job of protecting the food supply.

“Seldom is the evidence on a food-safety problem and solution so unambiguous,” said Michael R. Taylor, a senior adviser to the FDA. “Oysters that undergo post-harvest processing treatment will rarely pose a problem; while those left untreated can have deadly consequences.”

Mr. Taylor, who made the remarks last month in a speech to the biennial meeting of the Interstate Shellfish Sanitation Conference (ISSC) in Manchester, N.H., said the rule is modeled after a 2003 California law that virtually eliminated deaths from Vibrio vulnificus in the state.

“We no longer believe that measures which reduce the hazard, but fall well short of eliminating it, such as improvements in refrigeration, are sufficient … given the severity of the hazard and the availability of postharvest processing technologies,” he said.

The ISSC, formed by the seafood industry in 1982 to promote shellfish sanitation and which previously helped the FDA formulate a plan to reduce Vibrio vulnificus, balked at the new federal rule.

The conference complained that the FDA left it out of the decision-making process, discarded ongoing efforts at education and improved refrigeration to reduce risks and failed to fully evaluate the economic impact of the ban.

“Should the USFDA continue this effort without ISSC support it is likely that many states will choose not to enforce the federal policy,” J. Michael Hickey, chairman of the ISSC executive board, said in a Nov. 2 letter to the FDA Office of Food Safety.

A popular uprising against the raw-oyster ban is being organized at SaveOurShellfish.org. Its stated goal is to collect 50,000 signatures on an online petition.

• S.A. Miller can be reached at smiller@washingtontimes.com.

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