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Editor's Note: Saving people, or just saving face?

Property of SeaFood Business magazine
By Fiona Robinson, Editor in Chief
December 01, 2009

Oyster dealers and sellers heaved a collective sigh of relief last month when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration backed down from its hard-line approach of requiring post-harvest treatments on live Gulf oysters in the summer months (see Newsline story, page 8).

It's unlike the FDA to move fast on anything related to seafood, so the Interstate Shellfish Sanitation Conference was taken aback when the FDA told the group of its plan to implement the requirement for the 2011 harvest season. Ask any processor with a Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point program that goes through regular inspections and you're certain to see a lot of eye-rolling at the agency's sometimes contradictory demands and slow reaction time. So for the FDA to come up with a plan without first consulting the industry was somewhat of a surprise.

And to expect that dealers and processors would be able to come up with funding for millions of dollars of equipment within a year is absurd. And many of those involved in the Gulf industry are asking, "Why now?"

It's possible the FDA was caving under pressure from groups like the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), which has routinely gotten on a soap box about the potential risks (methylmercury, and now Vibrio ) associated with seafood consumption.

But it seems the FDA misjudged the oyster industry's vocal response to the proposed dictate. Gulf processors and politicians rallied around the cause and went straight to Washington, D.C., to voice opposition to the plan. The FDA ended that week with an agreement to work with the industry on potential post-harvest treatments such as high-pressure processing and freezing.

While oyster dealers may be relieved, it will be short lived. The FDA was saving face by seeming to involve the industry, but now is not the time to sit back and wait for the next shoe to fall. If you're concerned about the direction the FDA is moving in with regard to Gulf oysters, contact the members of Save Our Shellfish at saveourshellfish.org, or contact your local congressman. The CSPI isn't backing down; it's urging followers to e-mail local politicians with a message that says, among other things, "nearly all Gulf oysters are contaminated with Vibrio."

While I'm fully behind increased food-safety measures, people are going to eat foods that are not always healthy for them - just take a look at the increasing U.S. obesity rate. But for the handful of consumers with a pre-existing condition who get sick (or die) after consuming raw oysters, millions of others enjoy the bivalve without problems and are getting the health benefits, too. Consumers should be able to make their own food decisions - including eating a raw oyster from the Gulf in the summer months.



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