photo: The Nature Conservancy
The Food and Drug Administration announced today that it will back off on its plan to ban as of 2011 the sale of raw oysters from the Gulf Coast during part of the year because they have been linked with about a dozen annual deaths from poisoning. The move met stiff resistance from oysterman and foodies who say that frozen oysters are no substitute and that the ban will ruin a cultural tradition. About 15 people die a year from oyster poisoning from oysters harvested in the warmer months of the year. Gulf Coast legislators in Congress have introduced legislation to stop the FDA.
Robin Winchell, a spokeswoman for Representative Charlie Melancon, a Democrat from Louisiana, said the agency's action "is going to be devastating for the Gulf Coast oyster industry."
Eating shellfish raw is risky since they can be infected with both viral and bacterial contaminants. The bacteria Vibrio vulnificus is commonly present in oysters, but warm water can lead the bacteria to grow rapidly, so the riskiest oysters come from the Gulf of Mexico during the summer months.
Most people can eat raw oysters contaminated with vibrio without problem. Those with compromised immune system-- some of whom do not even know they have health issues -- are at gravest risk.
A question of freedom?
Opponents of the ban say that in the US no one should be prevented from eating anything they want. That argument doesn't hold much water. It's like saying that we should have no regulation on food, amounting to a free for all--caveat emptor, let the buyer beware.
A better argument, and one that I support, is that the risk is so small that a total ban is unwarranted. Fifteen people a year is not a reason to shut down an entire industry. If those were our standards, many industries would be put out of business overnight.