Make Our Food Safe Coalition Urges Congressional Support for FDA Action on Tainted Shellfish


Protections for Gulf Coast Shellfish Industry Would Increase Death Toll

November 9, 2009

WASHINGTON—The Center for Science in the Public Interest was joined today by victims, consumer advocacy, and public health organizations in urging Congress to support the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) efforts to protect consumers from contaminated oysters that each year cause scores of serious illnesses and deaths. The blood infection caused by Vibrio vulnificus bacteria in oysters is one of the most deadly foodborne illnesses, killing half of the people infected. Those who survive can have painful lesions and fluid-filled blisters all over their bodies, sometimes requiring limbs to be amputated. Four methods of post-harvest processing have proven effective at destroying the bacteria without harming the texture or flavor of the oysters.

But fearing the loss of jobs in the state, Florida Senator Bill Nelson and Representative Allen Boyd don't want the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to implement this life-saving measure and have instead proposed legislation putting the convenience of a tiny industry ahead of the lives and health of those who enjoy eating oysters. The Gulf Oyster Protection Act by Rep. Boyd and a similar bill by Senator Nelson are in response to FDA’s announcement last month that it will no longer tolerate the interstate sale of Gulf Coast oysters infected with the bacteria Vibrio vulnificus. Starting in 2011, oysters harvested from the Gulf of Mexico will have to be treated to destroy the bacteria in warm months when water and temperature conditions indicate it may be most prevalent.

"The lives snuffed out prematurely by contaminated oysters should not be coldly dismissed by the shellfish industry or by their allies in Congress as the 'cost of doing business,'" said CSPI senior staff attorney David Plunkett. "The industry has known for years how to prevent these deaths with readily available post-harvest processing techniques. Over 250 people have become ill and half of those have died since 2001, and if this industry-supported legislation passes, the toll of preventable death and disease caused by contaminated oysters will continue to rise."

The Gulf Coast oyster industry is fighting the new requirements, claiming they will affect jobs while only saving the lives of 15 to 20 people each year. The Gulf oyster harvest was valued at $60 million in 2008, including processed and unprocessed oysters. FDA meanwhile estimates that three-fourths of the Gulf Coast harvest won’t even be affected by the new requirement.

"Instead of speculating on lost jobs, Gulf Coast communities should expect that companies engaged in treating oysters would expand their business in the Gulf in anticipation of the new rules going into effect." Plunkett said.

For many years, the FDA allowed the shellfish industry to essentially police itself, in the form of the Interstate Shellfish Sanitation Conference, which is dominated by representatives from industry and coastal states. But that system has failed to prevent contaminated oysters from killing almost a score of people each year, according to CSPI.

In September, an Ohio man honeymooning in Panama City, Florida ate oysters at a beach-side oyster bar and became infected with Vibrio vulnificus. According to a report published in the Dayton Daily News, Darrell Dishon, who has diabetes, had to have his legs amputated in order to save his life. He told the paper that Florida used to be one of his favorite places but that he will never return: "Now it reminds me I’ll never have legs again. I don’t need to be reminded about that. I just have to look down to know about that."

"The FDA does not want to ban oysters, it wants to eliminate Vibrio vulnificus contamination in oysters," Plunkett said. "Advising high-risk consumers to avoid Gulf Coast oysters may have reduced overall demand for oysters, but has unfortunately done nothing to reduce the toll of deaths and illnesses. Making Gulf Coast oysters significantly safer will increase consumers' willingness to buy them, and will benefit all segments of the industry."

 

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