Oystermen say they’re getting a raw deal

Oystermen say they’re getting a raw deal



TALLAHASSEE — As oyster industry officials from Northwest Florida headed to Washington Monday to try to head off a proposed ban on summer raw oysters, the industry from Louisiana to Florida is ramping up for a fight along with area members of Congress.

U.S. Rep. Allen Boyd, D-Monticello and Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., filed legislation last week seeking to block the federal Food and Drug Administration from making the proposed rule change.

Boyd, D-Monticello, is on the House subcommittee that has control over the FDA’s budget. The agency has proposed requiring that oysters harvested in Gulf waters be processed rather than sold raw during certain months as a way of preventing the Vibrio vulnificus bacterial infection.

Industry officials from the oyster-rich Apalachicola region who were headed to Washington on Monday to talk with members of Congress and possibly officials with the FDA, say such infections are extremely rare and don’t warrant hurting an industry that many in certain areas of the Panhandle rely on.

The government says the rate of infections from Vibrio hasn’t dropped in the last several years and requiring post-harvesting processing would nearly eliminate sickness from the bacterial infection. The proposal would only affect oysters harvested from May through November.

“Rarely in public health are the data so incontrovertible,” Michael R. Taylor, senior advisor to the commissioner of the FDA, said in a speech last month. “Between 2001 and 2008, in spite of the efforts many have made, there has not been a significant decline in the number of cases of Vibrio vulnificus nationwide.”

The industry and the FDA agree that about 15 people die every year from Vibrio infection – a tiny number compared to deaths linked to other legal products.

“There is a risk with raw shellfish. There is a risk with riding motorcycles, but some people choose to do that,” said Kevin Begos, spokesman for the Gulf Oyster Industry Council, and the group Save Our Shellfish. Begos said that the industry does a lot of work to warn people about the risks, and is pushing a refrigeration initiative aimed at making oysters safer.

For the coastal region between East Point, Fla. and southern Louisiana, it’s an economic issue.

“It would kill the industry,” Anita Grove, executive director of the Apalachicola Chamber of Commerce said in a statement about the proposed rule.

“North Florida’s oyster industry is an economic engine for our coastal communities, and this new regulation would place an undue burden on an industry that has worked very hard over the years and been successful at reducing possible infections,” Boyd, whose district includes the oyster-rich Apalachicola Bay area, added in a statement. “The FDA has provided no justification as to why they would impose this new regulation on shellfish farmers, and little consideration seems to be given to the impact that this would have on the industry and the citizens trying to earn a living.”

Several members of Congress have joined Boyd in trying to head off the FDA. Some Louisiana members plan to meet with FDA officials this week to discuss the proposed new rules. An official in Boyd’s office said his staff will alsoattend, though Boyd is currently in the district.

The rules would only apply to a small number of raw oysters, those harvested in the Gulf of Mexico from May to November. The FDA contends it would only affect about 13 percent of all the oysters harvested in the United States, though those that would be affected would be from the Gulf.

According to the FDA, about 40 percent of Gulf oysters are harvested during warm months, and about half of them are eaten raw. Those are the ones that would be covered.

It’s not clear, however, that all those oysters would be impacted either. The FDA says it’s ability to enforce a post-harvest processing requirement would be limited to those that are sold across state lines. But because many oysters are intended for sale elsewhere, they might have to be processed under the requirement, unless oysters for sale locally could be segregated.

Begos said Louisiana lawmakers are working on legislation to guarantee raw oysters could be sold there, and that the industry is starting to work with state legislators in Florida on the same issue.

The FDA says only about 15 percent of Gulf oysters currently undergo the post-harvestiing processing that would be required under the new rule.

Begos said the industry is hoping to broaden the coalition to fight the rule beyond just the industry – and indeed the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association has joined the fight.

“We want to build a broad coalition to guarantee people’s right to eat this traditional and natural food,” Begos said.

The rule, if approved, would go into effect in 2011.