FDA plans next stages in oyster policy


James Wright, Senior Editor

Published on
November 12, 2009

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Friday announced that it would engage with the Gulf of Mexico oyster industry and state leaders to determine the next steps in its previously announced plan to require post-harvest processing on live oysters.

The agency’s proposal, first made public last month, has drawn sharp criticism from the oyster industry as well as from members of Congress. Earlier this week, Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) and others spoke out against the FDA’s proposal, a measure that would effectively ban the sale of the live shellfish for up to eight months a year. The plan would go into effect at the onset of the 2011 oyster season.

According to the FDA, the policy would affect about one-quarter of the annual harvest. But it would “substantially” reduce the number of American consumers who suffer from gastrointestinal illnesses and potentially die from the Vibrio bacterium. FDA says its policy is modeled after a California initiative that was implemented in 2003.

“It is clear to the FDA from our discussions to date that there is a need to further examine both the process and timing for large and small oyster harvesters to gain access to processing facilities or equivalent controls in order to address this important public health goal,” the agency said. “Therefore, before proceeding, we will conduct an independent study to assess how post-harvest processing or other equivalent controls can be feasibly implemented in the Gulf Coast in the fastest, safest and most economical way.”

Mike Voisin, a founding member of the Gulf Oyster Industry Council and CEO of Motivatit Seafoods in Houma, La., welcomed the FDA announcement as a first step.

“We're glad to see that the FDA has stopped its unilateral action,” Voisin said. “But traditional, raw Gulf Coast oysters must be available to consumers under any future plan. We support new technologies, but the oyster just as Mother Nature made it must always have a place at the table.”

The FDA said it will continue to discuss future collaboration with the Interstate Shellfish Sanitation Conference to address Vibrio vulnificus in the region. Also, FDA plans to work with the National Marine Fisheries Service, by offering technical assistance to facilitate implementation of post-harvest processing or equally effective alternatives.

Those alternatives include: Validation of processing parameters that can be applied to post-harvest processes to achieve non-detectable levels of Vibrio, while also preserving taste and texture, and ensuring that this information is in the public domain so that all processors can use it; studying alternatives to post-harvest processing, including off-shore relaying in which oysters are harvested and moved to salty waters where the high salinity kills Vibrio; and providing technical assistance to firms in development of their post-harvest processing processes and HACCP plans.

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