FDA delays raw oyster ban, Florida reaction mixed

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration today backed off a proposal to ban the sale of raw oysters from Gulf states during summer months by 2011.

The federal agency instead says it plans to study the issue and work with industry to develop a new timetable for possibly requiring the treatment of raw oysters. The announcement was met with mixed reviews among seafood industry supporters.

U.S. Rep. Allen Boyd, who introduced legislation aimed at blocking the proposed FDA ban announced last month, hailed the FDA move.

“Today’s announcement by the FDA is a tremendous victory for our oyster farmers and great news for North Florida’s coastal communities,” he said.

But Kevin Begos, coordinator of the Franklin County Oyster & Seafood Industry Task Force, said the announcement did not ensure the future sale of raw oysters from Gulf Coast states in the summer.

“We’re glad to see they (FDA officials) stopped their unilateral action,” Begos said. “But their press release does not address all of our concerns.”

About 15 people die each year in the United States from raw oysters infected with Vibrio vulnificus, which typically is found in warm coastal waters between April and October. Most of the deaths occur among people with weak immune systems caused by health problems like liver or kidney disease, cancer, diabetes, or AIDS.

The FDA proposed requiring that all oysters harvested from April to October receive post-harvest treatment through processes including flash freezing or warm-water pasteurization. Some seafood industry officials say consumers who like raw oysters may not like the treated shellfish or may be unwilling to pay the cost.

Today, the FDA said there is a need to further examine the process for large and small oyster harvesters to gain access to processing facilities. The federal agency said it will conduct an independent study to assess how post-harvest treatment or other controls can be feasibly implemented.

“Based on subsequent conversations with the industry and concerns we have been hearing, we wanted to take a step back and ensure we are doing this in a way that affects the public health and works for the oyster industry,” said Meghan Scott, an FDA spokeswoman.

David Barber, owner of Barber’s Seafood in Eastpoint, said the FDA jumped the gun with its proposal last month.

“If you know you eat something that makes you sick and you eat it anyway, what can you do about it?” he said.

(Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and FloridaEnvironments.com. Do not copy or redistribute without permission.)