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 Bourgois 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," Bourgois 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.