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FDA advisory irks Washington oyster industry

- James Wright
October 01, 2006

Northwest oyster growers are breathing a sigh of relief as the autumn cool sets in, and the region's waters become safe for harvesting once again.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration on July 31 issued a consumer advisory to avoid raw oysters from the Pacific Northwest after tracing Vibrio parahaemolyticus bacteria to oysters farmed in Washington. The pathogen was believed to have caused more than 70 gastrointestinal illnesses in the state and beyond its borders.

When the FDA updated its advisory on Aug. 11 telling consumers to avoid clams as well, shellfish suppliers were forced to lay off employees and face lost sales during the active summer months. By that time, 177 cases of vibriosis had been reported. 
Consumers were told to avoid all Northwest shellfish, despite the fact that key harvesting waters remained open. As of Aug. 18, Washington's Department of Health had closed only 19 of the state's 94 commercial-harvest zones.

Now, Washington's shellfish industry hopes that the federal government will help spread the message that the region's shellfish supply is safe as the grounds reopen.

"We both have the same goal: providing safe shellfish products for consumers to eat," says Bill Dewey, public affairs director for Taylor Shellfish Farms in Shelton, Wash., which laid off 45 employees for at least three weeks this summer. "[FDA] has an obligation to be more sensitive to specific areas and to any economic harm a press release may have."

Because of the broad nature of FDA's advisory, Dewey adds, many area growers' sales fell 20 to 40 percent, regardless of their location.

"Any time there's a story [about shellfish contamination] like in New England last year, it erodes consumer confidence across all shellfish products," he says.

Ian Jefferds, general manager at Penn Cove Shellfish of Coupeville, Wash., says his oyster sales plummeted 70 percent from mid-July to mid-September. He believes, though, that consumer confidence will return.

"The fact that everybody went above and beyond to assure the public's health should provide comfort to buyers and the feds that we have an effective control plan," says Jefferds. He adds that there was "a lot of grumbling" about the way the FDA handled the situation, issuing a blanket warning as opposed to a site-specific advisory.

Shortly after the initial outbreak of vibriosis in early July, the FDA issued an advisory to avoid Northwest oysters when a cluster of similar illnesses was reported in New York. Those cases were traced back to oysters from Washington, the agency said. When FDA extended the consumer advisory to include clams, growers' frustration mounted.

Jessie DeLoach, manager of licensing and certification for the Washington DOH Shellfish Program, says because FDA has authority over interstate commerce, the advisory was in full compliance with the National Shellfish Sanitation Program, and FDA acted in concert with state and international regulations.

"FDA is only trying to stay ahead of the curve," says DeLoach. "Sometimes the decision is unpopular, but it is one that is not taken lightly by the DOH or the FDA. [The FDA is] within its full right to alert the nation for what they feel is an illness related to shellfish.

"It's a cooperative effort," he adds. "We cannot do it alone, nor the state, nor the FDA or the industry. Each of these areas of coverage addresses all the respective controls to allow for prevention of illness." - James Wright

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