The FDA's Michael Taylor cited the deadly threat posed by the bacterium vibrio vulnificus in explaining the agency's decision to ban the sale of fresh, live, unprocessed oysters from Florida, Louisiana and Texas during the warm summer months. The law is set to take effect in 2011.
Oysters that have been quick-frozen, heated, pressurized or treated with gamma rays will be exempt from the ban, which mirrors a law adopted by California in 2003. According to Taylor, that law has winnowed the state's vibrio death rate to nearly zero, with just one fatality being investigated as a possible vibrio case. The nationwide vibrio death rate over the same period has approached 15 annually.
"Seldom is the evidence on a food safety problem and solution so unambiguous," Taylor told the audience at an Interstate Shellfish Sanitation Conference meeting in Manchester, N.H.
But that's not how Lynn Martina, owner of Lynn's Quality Oysters in Eastpoint, Fla., sees it.
"I think what they're doing is devastating," says Martina, a board member of the Gulf Oyster Industry Council. "I wish we could work only six months a year. Unfortunately, it don't work that way."
Martina says the Panhandle's oystermen and women, who've already been battered this year by the weak economy and a spate of undersized oysters that can't be harvested, aren't in a position to buy the processing equipment the new law will require.
"This is nothing but a fishing village," Martina says of the Apalachicola Bay area. "They might as well roll up the carpet here in Franklin County."
Martina questions the FDA's conclusion that the oyster industry should assume responsibility for eliminating vibrio, a nasty blood infection that disproportionately affects alcoholics and those suffering from AIDS, diabetes or kidney disorders.
"When those with liver disease, due to heavy drinking, need to receive the message, education is that much harder," Taylor said in his speech, explaining why the FDA opted for the prohibition strategy. That sort of reasoning exasperates Martina and her colleagues, who can't imagine why folks with compromised immune systems are feasting on raw oysters.
"The people who are getting sick shouldn't be eating raw oysters," she says. "When there are people dying from drunk driving, do they look to the liquor stores? No, they don't."