Thursday, November 5, 2009

Our national eating disorder's latest manifestation

Attack of the killer oysters!

Louisiana blasts new FDA rule requiring oysters to be sterilized to prevent rare bacterial illness
By Chris Kirkham, The Times-Picayune
October 28, 2009, 6:51AM

Oysters are a staple at Drago's restaurant in Metairie.
At the small warehouse tucked away in the back side of the French Quarter, the shuckers at P&J Oyster Co. have arrived before daybreak for 133 years.

Their in-shell and shucked oysters have been on the menus of generations of restaurateurs, from oysters on the halfshell at Acme Oyster House and Casemento’s to the seafood gumbo at Dickie Brennan’s Steakhouse.

In less than two years, the tradition could become obsolete for seven months out of the year, based on newly announced oyster guidelines from the Food and Drug Administration.

In an effort to reduce cases of a rare, but potentially fatal, bacterial illness contracted from raw oysters, the FDA announced new rules this month that will require any oyster served from April through October to undergo a sterilization process before it can be sold in restaurants or on the market.

The rule will essentially eliminate raw oysters -- at least as Louisianans know them -- from restaurant menus for seven months of the year. Even oysters that will eventually be cooked during those months would have to go through the same cleansing process before being added to any dish, a move some say would undermine the culinary integrity of some of New Orleans’ most famous delicacies.

“It’s not only going to include raw oysters. You can’t fry oysters for a po-boy, you can’t put oysters in a gumbo and you can’t charbroil oysters unless they’re post-harvest processed,” said Tommy Cvitanovich, owner of Drago’s restaurant, a mainstay for oysters in the metro area. “That’s ludicrous.”
Than Nguyen shucks oysters at P&J Oysters in the French Quarter on Tuesday. New FDA regulations that could begin in 2011 would require that oysters, from March to November, go through an intense sanitation process before they could be served in restaurants or on the open market. The effects in Louisiana -- and nationwide -- will be tremendous, from oyster-loving consumers down to seafood dealers and fishers, industry representatives and state government officials say. Louisiana is by far the largest oyster-producing state in the country, responsible for more than a third of the oysters brought to market nationwide.

The vast majority of those oysters are sold out of state.

“You talk about an economic impact that keeps going and going,” said Al Sunseri, the general manager of P&J, which has operated at Rampart and Toulouse streets since 1876. “You’ll have a number of people that count of the Gulf states during those months that will no longer be able to provide product to their customers.”

Local industry representatives and state health officials are highly critical of the FDA plan, with one oyster processor, Mike Voisin, equating the new guidelines to a “nuclear bomb” on the industry.

Alan Levine, secretary of the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals, said in a statement Tuesday that his agency has worked with the oyster industry for years to do biological tests and implement new guidelines requiring refrigeration of oysters less than five hours after they are harvested.

“What is particularly interesting is while the FDA seems focused on domestic oyster production, there is wide evidence that imported seafood is a far greater health threat, and there seems to be little movement by the FDA to get their arms around that problem,” Levine said in the statement.

Robert Barham, secretary of the state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, added in a joint statement, “The effect of the proposed ban would greatly impact the Gulf Coast oyster industry and threaten thousands of jobs here in Louisiana and all along the coast.”

The vibrio vulnificus disease, the target of the FDA initiative, affects about 30 individuals per year nationwide who eat raw oysters from Gulf Coast. About half of those who get the disease, which invades the bloodstream and can cause a severe fever and skin lesions, eventually die.

But those most at risk from vibrio are people who already have immune system disorders, such as AIDS, cancer, kidney disease, diabetes or alcohol abuse.

The oyster industry and FDA have been working for more than a decade to inform consumers who are most susceptible to the disease. But this month the FDA changed course, instead announcing that the industry would have to institute the new technology by 2011 to eliminate any risk from the disease during the months of April through October.

“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,” Michael Taylor, a senior adviser to FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg, told an industry group earlier this month.

The primary complaint from industry is that the infrastructure is simply not in place to comply with the FDA’s 2011 timetable.

The months of April through October, identified as the time of risk for the vibrio vulnificus disease, make up about 60 percent of the state’s oyster production, based on average harvests over the past 10 years. But the technology needed to comply, known as post-harvest processing, can currently handle only about 10 percent of the total production during those months.

The result could be oysters priced twice, even three times as much as they are now, according to industry estimates.

“The oyster community is made up of mom-and-pop operations that are not capital-intensive,” said Voisin, the owner of Motivatit Seafoods in Houma, who owns one of the three plants currently equipped to sterilize oysters under the upcoming FDA guidelines. “It would create a huge need for capital investment, at a time when huge capital investments into mom and pops are not being made.”

While there are sterilization processes that would allow consumers to still eat oysters from the shell, the technology in some cases actually would pry open the oyster itself. So the freshly shucked oysters at taverns across the city, dredged from the reefs less than a day earlier, would disappear for most of the year.

We produce one-third of the oysters in the whole country, and 4 million people in Louisiana can’t eat them all,' says John Tesvich, a local oyster processor.C.J. Casamento, the owner of Casamento’s restaurant on Magazine Street, said many chefs have tried the sterilized oysters in the past but have stopped because the flavor isn’t the same. His restaurant is already closed from June through August, but the guidelines would cut into one of his peak seasons: Jazz Fest. “People who come down here to eat raw oysters wouldn’t be coming down here to eat these things,” Casamento said of the sterilized oysters. “If they try to implement this, it will destroy all the raw oyster restaurants in the city.”

Because the guidelines have only recently been announced, it’s possible that the state could issue separate guidelines for oysters sold within Louisiana. FDA controls interstate commerce, but not business within individual states.

But the demand for Louisiana oysters nationwide would still put a crimp on the state’s industry, which employs more than 3,500 residents and is worth more than $300 million.

“Most of our oysters go out of state,” said John Tesvich, an oyster processor who owns one of the other plants capable of processing sterilized oysters. “We produce one-third of the oysters in the whole country, and 4 million people in Louisiana can’t eat them all.”

Chris Kirkham can be reached at or 504.826.3321.

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