FDA Ban On Gulf Oysters In Summer Examined

The Food and Drug Administration has banned the sale of unprocessed oysters harvested from the Gulf of Mexico during the summer months. Michael Taylor, senior adviser to FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg, offers the rationale for the ban. But Al Sunseri, owner of P and J Oyster Company, discusses what impact the ban will have.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

If you're a fan of raw oysters, here's some news you can use. The Food and Drug Administration plans to stop the sale of raw oysters harvested from the Gulf of Mexico during the warm months unless they've been treated to destroy potentially deadly bacteria. About 15 people die in the U.S. each year from eating raw oysters.

Michael Taylor is senior adviser to the FDA commissioner. And Mr. Taylor, tell us more about this bacteria and what you're concerned about here.

Mr. MICHAEL TAYLOR (Senior Adviser to FDA Commissioner): Well, this particular bacteria called Vibrio vulnificus grows in warm waters. So, in southern waters, such as the Gulf of Mexico during summer months, this bacteria is more present in the water. It infects the oysters and it happens to be a very deadly oyster, so half of the people who get an infection from this oyster die from it.

BLOCK: The guidance has been, avoid oysters in any month that doesn't include the letter R, right?

Mr. TAYLOR: Yes. I mean, that's been what we've known for ages that this is the practical guidance to protect people. So, what we're really just saying is that if you want to sell an oyster, you know, harvested in these warm waters, then we're simply saying treat it with the process that we know kills the bacteria and makes it safe.

BLOCK: But what's that process?

Mr. TAYLOR: Well, there are several different processes that include forms of freezing, includes subjecting the oysters to pressure, you know, other techniques. And what we've said is that, you know, given that we've got a set of technologies that are effective and essentially, you know, largely reducing this risk to zero, a processor should either use one of those available technologies. Or if there's another way to achieve the same result, given that we know we can really address this hazard with available technology, you know, that's the right standard of care to protect people to avoid unnecessary death.

BLOCK: Even if the number is rather small, if you consider the total population, 15 deaths a year.

Mr. TAYLOR: I personally don't consider 15 deaths a year to be a small number if they're avoidable. If it's known to be a preventable death, you know, one death is too many.

BLOCK: Michael Taylor is senior adviser to the FDA commissioner. Thanks for talking with us.

Mr. TAYLOR: You're very welcome.

BLOCK: We're going to hear now from on oyster wholesaler, the P&J Oyster Company, who's been processing and distributing oysters from the Gulf for more than 130 years. Al Sunseri owns the company. He joins me from the headquarters in New Orleans. Mr. Sunseri, what do you think about this plan from the FDA?

Mr. AL SUNSERI (Oyster Wholesaler, P&J Oyster Company): Well, I think that it's wrong. We've never been epidemiologically linked to a Vibrio vulnificus illness. So, to think that it's one of our oysters would be involved in an illness case is not true.

BLOCK: What do you think about those techniques that Michael Taylor was describing there to treat the oysters: high pressure, freezing temperatures, gamma radiation, things like that?

Mr. SUNSERI: I personally believe that they serve a purpose, but for the general population, it's unnecessary. I hate being put in a position to defend what my family has done for generations.

BLOCK: And what would it mean for your business if you couldn't sell oysters from the Gulf during the warm month?

Mr. SUNSERI: Well, even more so than not, we wouldn't be in business because we're located in the French Quarter of New Orleans. My facility is not large enough to put in any of the processes that are available. I would not be able to be in the business any longer and we're talking about a fifth generation business.

BLOCK: And if you were going to treat the oysters the way the FDA says you would have to, do you think the oyster would taste the same?

Mr. SUNSERI: Tastes are up to the individual. I have not really eaten those oysters. So, I'm not really the best one to ask.

BLOCK: You've eaten a lot of oysters though.

Mr. SUNSERI: Every day of my life for the last 30 years, so I could call my customers and tell them what they taste like.

BLOCK: And in the warm months, doesn't give you any worry?

Mr. SUNSERI: I've never had a concern. We sell oysters 12 months out of the year and have for 133 years. We have boats that have refrigeration on board, our trucks are refrigerated. We don't leave them out. We handle them with lots of care and there are good ways to handle your oysters where the consumer can be protected.

BLOCK: Mr. Sunseri, thanks very much.

Mr. SUNSERI: You're quite welcome.

BLOCK: Al-Sunseri owns the P&J Oyster Company in New Orleans.

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