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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
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
"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
"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