Is protecting consumers from uncooked oysters a rotten plan?

Health and medicine explained.
Nov. 11 2009 1:00 PM

Raw Deal

Is protecting consumers from uncooked oysters a rotten plan?

Are the pleasures of raw Gulf oysters worth the giant risks?
Are the pleasures of raw Gulf oysters worth the giant risks?

Since the Food and Drug Administration announced last month that it plans to ban the sale of unprocessed Gulf of Mexico oysters from April through October, people in New Orleans have been gobbling the things down as if there's no tomorrow. That's the Big Easy for you. Risky as it is just to live there, you think dey go worry about itty-bitty bacteria?

"I served 50 dozen raw oysters yesterday," Mark Defelice, the chef at Pascal's Manale on Napoleon Street, told me Thursday. "People see the articles and TV about it, and they start thinking, 'Man, I'm going to eat me some raw oysters.' "

Like most people who sell or eat oysters in Louisiana, Defelice doesn't think much of the FDA's decision, which would take effect in 2011 and which is intended to stop the 15 or so annual food-poisoning deaths caused by Vibrio vulnificus, a choleralike bacteria that thrives in the Gulf. "It's just the stupidest thing I ever heard in my life," he said.

Actually, from the narrow standpoint of a government agency trying to reduce death and illness from a clearly risky behavior, the FDA decision makes total sense. On the unpleasant-experience scale, going septic from Vibrio vulnificus has got to rank right up there with acute radiation poisoning. Fever burns you up; big, ugly blisters bust out on your skin; and you wander into the hospital forgetting your name. These bloodstream infections, though rare, are so fast and furious that only 50 percent survive them. Others lose their limbs.

And the FDA has done its scientific due diligence. The agency first considered banning summer oysters 15 years ago but agreed first to hold a review period to see whether less drastic measures would work. The oystermen agreed to ice their catch within five hours, and seafood restaurants and stores posted signs warning of the dangers of raw oysters. Neither of these measures has reduced the infection rate. Meanwhile, beginning in 2003, California started to require all Gulf oysters sold in the state in the warm months to be pasteurized. This technology has proven effective at drastically reducing bacterial levels in the oysters. California, which saw four Vibrio deaths per year in the 1990s, has had zero since implementing the ban.

Case closed, from the epidemiological point of view. "It's really a people-over-profit story," says the FDA's Rita Chappelle. But there are a few factors that make me wonder whether this decision—which will have to undergo public and possibly White House review before it becomes law—is the right one to take.

First of all, almost all severe Vibrio infections from oysters occur in people with underlying conditions like liver disease. There has been a consistent public-health message warning these individuals that they're at 80-fold risk of getting sick if they eat raw oysters in August. (Of course, some of them are alcoholics who don't see doctors or undiagnosed diabetics and haemochromatosis patients who also might not realize they are at risk.)

Second, the decision could wreck the Gulf oyster industry or, at the very least, drive a lot of the 3,500 people who work in oysters there out of business. "We're still trying to recover from Hurricane Katrina," says Al Sunseri, 51. That he's a fifth-generation oyster distributor (he co-owns P and J Oysters on Rampart Street in New Orleans) tells you something about the power of the oyster tradition in the Gulf. I was told that it costs about $1 million to install pasteurization equipment, which may include flash freezers, high-pressure chambers, or radiation. There are about 500 Gulf oyster dealers, many of them mom-and-pop operations. If they managed to finance the conversion, they might have to double or triple their prices. For P and J, this is out of the question, anyway. "We're in the middle of the French Quarter," Sunseri said. "We'd never get permits to bring that machinery in here."

A lot of oyster aficionados say the processed oysters lack the flavor of the fresh raw product. Too rubbery, too cooked-tasting, they say. The FDA says the processes "retain the sensory qualities of raw product," and double-blind consumer surveys don't show much of a difference in perception. But, then, consumers will know what they're eating, and being a step removed from the wild sea erodes the mystique of the raw oyster. At this stage of the game, with the dangers of oysters well-publicized, eating them out of season is already America's tamer version of fugu, the deadly delicacy so prized in Japan. Only about 10 percent of all consumers and one-third of oyster lovers say they'd eat the processed kind, according to Ben Posadas, a Mississippi State University researcher.

Finally, coming down on the oyster is kind of an odd move for FDA to be making in the context of much larger food-safety issues that haven't been addressed. Nasty as Vibrio vulnificus is, it's a perfectly natural bacterium that's always been present in oysters. In the meantime, other bacteria have evolved in our factory-farming system to new levels of virulence and spread with little FDA control. (Legislation is pending in Congress.) Strains of salmonella, E. coli, listeria, campylobacter, and other microbes together kill an estimated 5,700 people a year in the United States. Yet few are calling for all chicken to be irradiated or all eggs to be pasteurized.

In time, maybe we'll all get used to it, but the ban seems particularly egregious in Louisiana, the unhealthiest, most obese place in the country. In New Orleans, which I visited last month, attitudes toward pleasure and health are weighted heavily toward the former. No raw oysters during Jazzfest in late April? Seems impossible to imagine. Like people nowhere else, Louisianans smoke, drink, and eat anything that doesn't eat them first. This is especially true of raw-oyster lovers. The kind of risk/benefit ratios drawn up at the Harvard School of Public Health and the FDA are worthless to them.

It's possible that if the FDA order takes effect, Louisiana will pass overriding legislation enabling its citizens to partake of the raw stuff. And that could produce a silver lining: If the only place to get a "real oyster" is New Orleans, maybe more people will visit.

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