Coalition Calls for Congressional Support of FDA Action on Tainted Oysters

By Courtney Brein, Linda Golodner Food Safety and Nutrition Fellow

Each year, dozens of American consumers fall ill – and half of those individuals die – from eating raw Gulf Coast oysters contaminated with Vibrio vulnificus bacteria, present in oysters harvested in the region during the summer months. These illnesses and deaths can be prevented, while still allowing consumers to enjoy oysters when the weather turns warm, with one simple measure: post-harvest processing. Vibrio vulnificus contamination is not simply a case of an upset stomach. I have read numerous horror stories of individuals who managed to survive oyster-induced illnesses, only to face fluid-filled blisters, significant skin loss, and multiple amputations. The National Consumers League and fellow members of the Make Our Food Safe Coalition today urged Congress to support FDA efforts to protect the public from contaminated oysters.

In October, the FDA announced that, as of 2011, oysters harvested from the Gulf of Mexico during the warmer months will have to be treated before reaching consumers, in order to kill the Vibrio vulnificus bacteria that are most prevalent at that time. Since 2001, the agency has expressed concern about the bacteria to the oyster industry and has made it clear that, if the industry’s voluntary efforts to reduce illness and deaths from contamination did not succeed, it would require post-harvest processing. In 2003, California began requiring post-harvest processing of Gulf Coast oysters sold in the state during the summer months; not a single person has fallen ill or died from consuming Gulf Coast oysters in California since.

The oyster industry, however, is exerting its powerful lobby to block these doable, life-saving requirements. Concerned about job loss in their home state of Florida, despite the fact that the FDA regulation will only affect a small portion of Gulf Coast oyster production, Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) and Representative Allen Boyd (D-FL) have each proposed legislation to hamper the FDA’s efforts. We understand that they are trying to protect a hometown industry, but NCL believes consumer health and safety must come first.

“I like raw oysters as much as the next person, but consumers should be able to enjoy the delicacy without putting their lives in danger,” stated Sally Greenberg, Executive Director of NCL. “Post-harvest processing is estimated to cost as little as 2 cents per oyster, and has little or no impact on flavor. The industry can, and should, implement this life-saving measure, which will only be necessary for less than one quarter of the Gulf Coast oyster harvest.”

Until the oyster industry starts processing oysters during the summer months, consumers will continue to fall ill and die. According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, since 2001, more than 250 individuals on vacation, celebrating special occasions, or simply enjoying a restaurant meal have ordered and consumed raw Gulf Coast oysters, and have become ill or died as a result. Even greater numbers have looked on as family members suffered after consuming contaminated oysters. As Vicki Peal of Florida, a tireless advocate for protective measures on oyster consumption, has stated, “Vibrio vulnificus is a deadly bacteria that eats you inside out like gangrene. Seventeen years ago I took my father out to a dinner of raw oysters that killed him. I had to watch that sweet kind man die like a dog. …Kudos to the FDA for finally requiring procedures to ensure the safety of Gulf oysters. And shame on any elected official who would get in the way of this overdue public health protection. The only good oyster is a safe oyster and FDA’s action will save limbs and lives.”

It is long past time that FDA, the consumer watchdog on the shellfish industry, stepped in with this important regulatory requirement. NCL applauds the agency for its efforts to make Gulf Coast oysters as safe as their colder water counterparts, no matter the season in which they are consumed.