FDA Bows To Pressure From Fans Of Raw Oysters

  • Casamento's Restaurant in New Orleans is famous for its fresh raw oysters on the half shell. Customers say the FDA was overreaching with a plan to require Gulf oysters to be treated to rid them of a potentially deadly bacteria.
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    Casamento's Restaurant in New Orleans is famous for its fresh raw oysters on the half shell. Customers say the FDA was overreaching with a plan to require Gulf oysters to be treated to rid them of a potentially deadly bacteria.
    Photos by Debbie Elliott/NPR
  • At many old-line restaurants, oysters go from burlap boat sacks to raw bar. But these are headed for a hot-water bath at the AmeriPure oyster pasteurization plant in Franklin, La.
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    At many old-line restaurants, oysters go from burlap boat sacks to raw bar. But these are headed for a hot-water bath at the AmeriPure oyster pasteurization plant in Franklin, La.
  • About two-thirds of the oysters eaten in the United States come from the Gulf of Mexico. An average of 15 deaths are caused each year by Vibrio vulnificus — a naturally occurring bacteria found in warm-water oysters.
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    About two-thirds of the oysters eaten in the United States come from the Gulf of Mexico. An average of 15 deaths are caused each year by Vibrio vulnificus — a naturally occurring bacteria found in warm-water oysters.
  • AmeriPure owner John Tesvich says the secret of pasteurization is controlling the temperature accurately to kill bacteria without cooking the oyster. The oyster is no longer alive, but it is still considered raw.
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    AmeriPure owner John Tesvich says the secret of pasteurization is controlling the temperature accurately to kill bacteria without cooking the oyster. The oyster is no longer alive, but it is still considered raw.
  • The FDA plan called for raw Gulf oysters harvested between April and October to go through one of several approved treatments – pasteurization, high pressure, quick freezing or irradiation. But the Gulf's oyster industry and many politicians fought the change.
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    The FDA plan called for raw Gulf oysters harvested between April and October to go through one of several approved treatments – pasteurization, high pressure, quick freezing or irradiation. But the Gulf's oyster industry and many politicians fought the change.
  • Mike Rogers has been shucking oysters for 35 years — "heaven on the half-shell," he calls them. One of every two Casamento's customers orders raw oysters. The regulars also ask for Rogers' special cocktail sauce, heavy on the horseradish.
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    Mike Rogers has been shucking oysters for 35 years — "heaven on the half-shell," he calls them. One of every two Casamento's customers orders raw oysters. The regulars also ask for Rogers' special cocktail sauce, heavy on the horseradish.
  • Treated oysters are banded to keep the shell closed during post-harvest processing. Treated oysters have a firmer texture than unprocessed shellfish.
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    Treated oysters are banded to keep the shell closed during post-harvest processing. Treated oysters have a firmer texture than unprocessed shellfish.
  • Casamento's owner C.J. Gerdes opposes the FDA plan. He says he tried processed oysters — once. "I told 'em to take them right back. No taste to 'em. They taste like rubber. So I wouldn't use them. I would just go without," he said.
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    Casamento's owner C.J. Gerdes opposes the FDA plan. He says he tried processed oysters — once. "I told 'em to take them right back. No taste to 'em. They taste like rubber. So I wouldn't use them. I would just go without," he said.
  • Casamento's lunch customer Jim Landry (far left, against wall) says the FDA is "pushing their far-reaching tentacles where they shouldn't be." But the agency says it has a public health duty to act when technology might prevent illness and death.
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    Casamento's lunch customer Jim Landry (far left, against wall) says the FDA is "pushing their far-reaching tentacles where they shouldn't be." But the agency says it has a public health duty to act when technology might prevent illness and death.
  • The Gulf Oyster Industry Council says the FDA policy would have been catastrophic for mom and pop oyster operations.  The industry has strong support from the Gulf Coast congressional delegation. Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Democrat from Louisiana, says the FDA is in "for a long, long fight" if it pursues the plan.
    Hide caption
    The Gulf Oyster Industry Council says the FDA policy would have been catastrophic for mom and pop oyster operations. The industry has strong support from the Gulf Coast congressional delegation. Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Democrat from Louisiana, says the FDA is in "for a long, long fight" if it pursues the plan.
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Legend has it that raw oysters are good for love — but they're also worth fighting over, as the Food and Drug Administration has learned.

Facing political pressure from the Gulf Coast oyster industry, the FDA has backed off a plan to require raw oysters from the Gulf of Mexico to be treated to rid them of Vibrio vulnificus, a potentially deadly bacteria found in warm-water oysters. Harvesters and politicians had warned that the plan could devastate the industry.

The outcry was especially loud in Louisiana, the nation's top oyster producer.

A Debate Over Flavor, Safety

At Casamento's Restaurant, a New Orleans fixture since 1919, customers were outraged when the FDA announced that it would require Gulf oysters to undergo a post-harvest treatment from April to October if they're intended to be eaten raw.

"It's ridiculous," said customer Nancy Chacere. "People are sick and dying of E. coli [from] eating beef. Why are they worried about oysters?"

"It's part of our culture," said Chacere, who had just eaten a dozen raw, with a little hot sauce.

"I remember as a child going fishing and eating oysters right out of the boat, out of the water. The idea of having to radiate them or whatever they want to do is ridiculous."

The agency had sought to require warm-weather raw oysters to go through one of several approved treatments: pasteurization, high pressure, quick freezing or irradiation.

C.J. Gerdes, who owns Casamento's, says he wouldn't serve processed oysters. "No taste to 'em. They taste like rubber. So I wouldn't use them. I would just go without," he said.

Gerdes says the FDA is overreaching. But regulators say that more than a decade of trying to educate at-risk consumers has not worked. About 30 people get sick each year from oyster-borne Vibrio vulnificus, and half of them die.

The agency is simply doing its duty, according to Michael Taylor, senior adviser to FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg.

"We have a public health duty to act when there's a means to really prevent very serious illnesses and deaths with the technology that's available — and that's what we've done here," Taylor said.

About two-thirds of the oysters eaten in the United States come from the Gulf of Mexico. Taylor says that less than a quarter of the harvest would have be affected by the new policy, which has now been put on hold for more study.

Weighing Costs, Benefits Of Regulation

Mike Voisin, owner of Motivatit Seafood in Houma, La., and a member of the Gulf Oyster Industry Council, says that his company already pressurizes oysters — but Voisin says that most smaller oyster shops can't afford the processing equipment, and shouldn't be forced to purchase it.

"We don't live in a nanny state," he said.

"We don't have to be protected from everything. It makes no sense," Voisin said.

"The FDA has not banned sugar because it hurts diabetics. They've educated diabetics. We should educate that at-risk consumer."

But the industry's argument doesn't make sense to Jenny Bourgeois of Baton Rouge, La. Her father, James Sartwell, died from the flesh-eating bacteria two years ago, after eating raw oysters at his 60th birthday dinner.

"I can't imagine that they would actually put an economic value on what the lives of 15 individuals, or more, are worth," Bourgeois said.

Fourth-generation Louisiana oysterman John Tesvich agrees.

"It's very popular to say it's not our issue, it's only a few people," he said. "That's the wrong position to take. You're in the food business!"

Giving Oysters A Hot Bath

When the public health debate over Vibrio was getting national attention in the mid-1990s, Tesvich started AmeriPure — an oyster pasteurization company.

At AmeriPure's Franklin, La., plant, sacks of oysters are unloaded, cleaned and secured with a rubber band before being dunked into a giant hot water tank.

"The secret is controlling the temperature accurately to kill the bacteria without cooking the oyster," Tesvich said. "It remains juicy and succulent."

The oyster remains raw, but it's no longer alive. The pasteurized oyster has a stronger flavor and firmer texture than unprocessed oysters.

AmeriPure sells up to 20 million pounds of pasteurized Gulf oysters a year to customers all over the country, including some of the nation's top seafood chains.

Tesvich says the industry should stop fighting health officials.

"Illnesses and deaths being associated with your product keep us down. It hurts our marketability," he said.

But the industry appears to be winning the current fight, thanks to the help of Gulf Coast lawmakers, who met with FDA officials last week.

"We made it extremely clear that we thought this announced proposed rule was completely unjustified and really out of left field," said Sen. David Vitter, a Republican from Louisiana.

Vitter, along with Democrats Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Bill Nelson of Florida, sponsored a bill to block funding for FDA.

"If this administration is taking a position than we cannot have any deaths or illnesses of any food consumed, we're in for a long, long fight," Landrieu said.

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