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Point of View: Gulf oysters in jeopardy

Property of SeaFood Business magazine
By Kevin Begos
February 01, 2010

Last October the U.S. Food and Drug Administration stunned members of the Gulf Coast oyster community by announcing the intent to ban the sale of traditional, raw Gulf oysters for five or more months each year, starting in 2011.

Almost as surprising as how fast that announcement was made was how quickly the FDA stepped back. A storm of protests from Gulf Coast residents, politicians and consumers who don't even like raw oysters forced the FDA to issue a statement in November calling for more study of the issue.

But there are no signs that the FDA has truly changed its long-term goal. It still believes that consumers shouldn't be allowed to eat traditional, raw Gulf Coast oysters for much of the year because of the presence of the naturally occurring bacterium Vibrio vulnificus .

That makes FDA's proposed oyster ban a fisheries question with implications that go far beyond the Gulf oyster industry, because Vibrio exists in marine environments worldwide. Lost in the debate over Gulf oysters was the fact that some people have gotten ill from the same organism in East Coast oysters and clams.

And Vibrio is not present because of pollution; in fact, healthy people can eat an oyster containing the bacterium with no problem. So what, then, is the FDA actually trying to regulate? Nature.

The world is full of bacteria, and people have eaten oysters for thousands of years - probably tens of thousands. But now that we have discovered that some people with pre-existing health conditions are highly sensitive to Vibrio , do we ban this natural food?

Some people are highly allergic to peanuts, but we don't ban the little goobers. Pregnant women are advised not to eat raw fish, but we don't ban sushi. In fact, statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that Vibrio causes far less than 1 percent of foodborne illness and death.

The oyster industry has done its part by develop-
ing safer alternatives to traditional, raw oysters for at-risk consumers. These processes allow the oyster to be consumed raw but with added safety features that reduce Vibrio to non-detectable levels.

An educational Web site for at-risk consumers can be found at www.BeOysterAware.com.

When we step back and take an objective, scientific look at the issue, it's clear that different people choose different levels of acceptable risk in virtually every aspect of life. I don't choose to ride a motorcycle or skydive, but in America that doesn't mean I have the right to prevent other adults from choosing to do so and 
making their own decision about risk.

Within weeks of the first FDA announcement, thousands of citizens had signed online petitions opposing the FDA ban, with comments such as this from a Martha S.: "My body, my decision, my choice, my freedom, my oysters." Kathy L. wrote: "I don't eat raw oysters, but I think people have the right to decide if they want to eat them or not!"

The FDA should listen to those voices from the real world and recognize that, in America, the people have the final say, not Washington bureaucrats. Leave our natural Gulf Coast oysters alone, and let people choose to eat them - or not - just as they have since the dawn of civilization.


Kevin Begos is director of the Franklin County Oyster & Seafood Task Force in Apalachicola, Fla.


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