The strict new rules, designed to combat the deadly Vibrio vulnificus bacteria that swarms in warm water, require Texas, Florida and Louisiana oyster processors to freeze, heat, radiate or pressurize their oysters. But oyster connoisseurs worry their favored bivalves won't be the only casualty of post-harvest processing; Insiders suspect the law will also kill the Gulf coast's oyster industry.
The New Orleans Times-Picayune's editorial board this week condemned the legislation, writing "Small mom-and-pop operations will have a difficult time coming up with the money to buy sterilization equipment by 2011," the year the law is set to take effect.
"The agency doesn't seem to have even considered the devastating impact on Louisiana's oyster industry," the editors add.
While New Orleans restaurant owners complain they can't pawn off dead oysters on sophisticated gourmands, it seems unlikely the regulations will apply in-state, since the FDA's oversight extends only to interstate commerce. Still, tourism officials aren't pleased by the federal government's insinuation that it's unsafe to eat oysters, a perception that could drastically shorten the lines at Acme Oyster House and other institutions perpetuating what Kelly Schulz, vice president of the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau, describes as the city's "unique culinary culture."
"Tourism is our number one industry, and we don't want anything to interfere with that," Schulz says.
As oyster backers like to point out, the annual death toll associated with eating raw oysters is 15 people -- and even the FDA concedes all of those Vibrio victims had compromised immune systems.
"At some point, individuals have to take responsibility for what they eat," says Wendy Waren of the Louisiana Restaurant Association, which is leading the charge to lobby against the law.
"Quite frankly, this came as a huge shock to the industry," Waren says. "There's a great movement to stop it in its tracks."
Sen. Mary Landrieu this week joined the secretaries of Louisiana's Department of Health and Hospitals and Department of Wildlife and Fisheries in challenging the new law as a serious threat to a $318 million industry.
"The FDA has bigger fish to fry and should let our seafood industry continue to educate consumers about the risks associated with eating raw products," Landrieu was quoted as saying in a press release issued Wednesday. "Imposing burdensome federal regulations that may take away 3,500 much-needed jobs in Louisiana is not the answer."
Waren predicts Landrieu's fellow legislators will soon join her in protesting the ban:
"I don't think there's a member of our congressional delegation who will be able to side with the FDA," she says.