Bacteria on the Halfshell


It might have taken a brave man to “first et oyster,” but with apologies to Dr. Johnson, it takes a much braver man to come between me and a dozen of the glistening bivalves on a bed of shaved ice washed down with perhaps a dram of Stoli.

Michael Taylor of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) did exactly that late last month when he announced plans to require that between April and October all Gulf of Mexico oysters (and that means two-thirds of the oysters that are eaten in this country) must be sterilized before being sold to the public. Only oysters that are sterilized by being zapped by gamma rays, subjected to high water pressure, heated, or quick frozen will be allowed to be processed and shipped from the gulf.

The target of the FDA anti-raw-oyster campaign is a bacterium called Vibrio vulnificus which proliferates during the spring, summer, and fall in the warm waters of the Gulf. For most diners, the bug causes no problems, but for those with compromised immune systems, it can prove deadly, accounting for about 15 fatalities per year.

Although the food bureaucrats insist that the germ-killing techniques preserve “the sensory qualities of the raw product, the New Orleans restaurant community is furious. C. J Casamento, owner of the eponymous restaurant on Magazine Street (where I have scarfed more than my share of Gulf oysters with no ill-effects), told Chris Kirkham, a reporter with the Times-Picayune that chefs who try the sanitized oysters stop using them because the flavor isn’t the same.

“If they try to implement this, it will destroy all the raw oyster restaurants in the city,” he said. “The effect of the proposed ban would greatly impact the Gulf Coast oyster fishery and threaten thousands of jobs here in Louisiana and all along the coast,” added Robert Barham of Louisiana’s Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.

I realize that the FDA has the best of intentions. California has had such regulations since 2003 and has reported no deaths from Vibrio, which killed about four people a year there during the 1990s. But surely all the public announcements and mandatory printed menu warnings should have made at-risk diners aware of the risks associated with eating raw oysters by now.

Does the Nanny State have to dictate to the rest of us what we can and can’t slurp?

UPDATE: On November 13 the FDA announced that it would back off implementing the Gulf oyster ban. Whew!

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  1. Ken says:

    This is a tired issue. Food cops are over-stepping. We are adults. And if we want raw oysters, raw almonds, raw cheeses, and god-forbid produce that hasn’t been gamma-radiated we shall have them. One way or the other.

    The Gov should be limited to “WARNING” people through labels, etc. They seem to feel that is adequate with cigarettes which kill roughly half a million people per year in the U.S. But the oysters which “might” kill 15 people with “compromised immune systems” are forbidden? Come of it! Wonder how many of these compromised immuno issues stem from Gov radiating our food and lobbying for pharmaceuticals and the lot!?

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  2. I’m not sure this is any different than peanuts. And peanut butter hasn’t disappeared from menus yet.

  3. Lia Huber says:

    Ditto the above. The FDA release is downright condescending. In a nutshell (which will probably be “altered” for safety too in a few years), they’re saying that because consumers haven’t responded “adequately” to the barrage of warnings over the past 7 years that the organization needs to take matters into their own hands to save us all. I wonder if it ever occurred to the FDA that people might actually consciously choose to take that risk? I mean, we do every time we get behind the wheel of a car with much greater risk than eating an oyster.

  4. Jessie Cacciola says:

    As a fellow oyster-slinger-backer, I’ve been in support of protesting this ban, but I’m just coming across more research material. I’m wondering why the target is Vibrio vunificus and not Karenia brevis.

    NOAA identified the gulf a dead zone in 2000 and clean-up projects are still in the works. Maybe a temporary ban is wise? Would appreciate any thoughts on this.

  5. Darlene says:

    Yeah, what a relief! If a few people have to give their lives each year so we can have the pleasure of continuing to eat raw oysters, it’s a pretty small price to pay.

    Yikes! Dude, do you realize what you are saying?!?! You’re a psychopath!

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