Food Engineering

FDA changes direction on Vibrio vulnificus in Gulf Coast oysters

December 3, 2009

CSPI says public has lost out to politics of special interests

Several weeks ago, the Food and Drug Administration announced its intent to change, by summer 2011, its policy regarding the post-harvest processing of raw Gulf Coast oysters harvested in warmer months. The intent of the change, which would affect about 25% of the total annual harvest, would be to substantially reduce the number of Americans who suffer severe and painful illness and death from the Vibrio vulnificus bacteria. The policy change was modeled on a successful California initiative implemented in 2003.

Since making its initial announcement, the FDA has received feedback from Gulf Coast oyster harvesters, state officials, and elected representatives from across the region about the feasibility of implementing the post-harvest changes by the summer of 2011. Their concerns are legitimate, the FDA says.

According to the FDA, both the process and timing for large and small oyster harvesters to gain access to processing facilities or equivalent controls require further examination. The administration is proceeding with an independent feasibility study to assess how the post-harvest process can be quickly, safely and economically implemented in the Gulf Coast region.

But according to David Plunkett, senior staff attorney for the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), the public loses in this FDA decision. “Public health lost out to the politics of special interests with FDA’s announcement that it may delay a requirement for processing Gulf Coast oysters to destroy the deadly bacteria Vibrio vulnificus, pending the findings of a feasibility study,” says Plunkett. “A group of Gulf Coast Senators and Representatives weighed in on the side of a small but vocal industry in their states and won. Unfortunately this political victory for the Gulf Coast oyster industry is a health tragedy for their customers, and the action condemns scores of consumers to serious illness and death from this potent pathogen,” adds Plunkett.

According to the CSPI, The Gulf Oyster Protection Act by Rep. Allen Boyd (D-Fla.), and a similar bill by Senator Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), are in response to FDA’s original ruling that it would no longer tolerate the interstate sale of Gulf Coast oysters inflected with the bacteria. Boyd’s proposed bill states that “No federal funds may be used to establish or implement under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act or other authority any requirement for the control of Vibrio vulnificus applicable to the post-harvest processing of oysters that is in addition to Federal requirements applicable to such processing as of the date of the enactment of this Act.”