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Oyster ban halted, for now

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By Lou Elliott Jones

Oysters on the Gulf Coast — including those in lugged by Cedar Key water men — are safe from a proposed federal Food and Drug administration “warm months” ban for now.

Leslie Sturmer, multi-county aquaculture extension agent, briefed the Levy County Commission on Tuesday on the status of a proposed rule requiring post-harvest processing of oysters or an outright ban on the harvest and sale of oysters from Gulf of Mexico waters from April through October beginning in 2011.

Before she left the meeting, the commissioners told the county attorney to draft a resolution critical of the ban and the Washington, D.C., mandate, and to voice its support for state Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson's efforts to keep it from taking effect. The commission is expected to vote on the resolution at its Dec. 8 meeting.

The FDA first announced the proposed ban on Oct. 16, but last week withdrew taking the action pending further study and discussion.

Sturmer, who works out of IFAS/Cooperative Extension Service office in Cedar Key, said the FDA proposal, which has been withdrawn for now, “affects whether you can consumer your shellfish raw or not.”

She said the danger in consuming raw oysters is because they are filter feeders — they filter their food out of the water passing through— and individuals with immune compromised systems are vulnerable to the bacteria vibrio vulnificus.

“If you eat oysters that have vibrio vulnificus you have illnesses,” Sturmer said. But at the same time she noted that there are 15 deaths per year attributed to the bacteria. She also noted that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report there are 76 million cases of foodborne illness each year.

Sturmer said the Interstate Shellfish Sanitation Conference, which meets every two years, and the FDA have worked together since 2001 on a plan to reduce the vibrio in oysters. The industry was to have gone to a 60 percent reduction in vibrio cases by 2007-2008. “They did not meet that,” Sturmer said.

The post-harvest processes include “flash frozen” on the half shell, heat-cool pasteurization where oysters spend 24 minutes in 126 degree water before spending 15 minutes in 40 degree water; high hydrostatic pressure where the oysters are exposed to 35,000 to 40,000 pounds of pressure per square inch; and irradiation, the same kind used for produce and meat.

“It affects the texture and flavor,” Sturmer said. And it would be expensive to implement by 2011.

U.S. Rep. Allen Boyd, who represents Apalachicola, has filed the Gulf Oyster Protection Act which would ban enforcement of the FDA rule.

As a result of the uproar created in Congress and in the public, the FDA backed off of the 2011 enforcement order.

Sturmer said work will be done on developing a more economically viable post harvest treatment for the oysters.

Commissioner Lilly Rooks of Rosewood, who represents Cedar Key, said, “You're starting with oysters and moving on to clams.”

Sturmer said, “If they go forward with this, our clam industry will be affected.”

The change was first announced at the ISSC meeting on Oct. 17 by Michael R. Taylor, senior advisor to the FDA commissioner. He said, “... this lack of progress is not acceptable to anyone. And so we believe that the time has come for a new approach.”

With that he announced that the FDA would be requiring post-harvest processing of oysters or equivalent measures would be taken at the start of the 2011 “risk season” — April to October.

Taylor said California, which banned Gulf oysters that had not had post-harvest processing in 2003 saw deaths attributed to vibrio drop from 40 in 1991 and 2001 to zero for the past six years.

“Seldom is the evidence on a food safety problem and solution so unambiguous,” he said.

He went on to say: “We no longer believe that measures which reduce the hazard, but fall well short of eliminating it, such as improvements in refrigeration, are sufficient to meet the purpose of the regulation, given the severity of the hazard and the availability of post-harvest processing technologies.”

Lou Elliott Jones can be reached at editor@chieflandcitizen.com.