A unilateral proposal by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to depart from an agreed plan to manage oyster safety could be harmful to Louisiana’s oyster industry, which employs more than 3,500 Louisianians, Secretary Alan Levine of the Louisiana Department of Health and Secretary Robert Barham of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries said today.

The proposal would place regulations for post-harvest processing and preservation on Louisiana harvesters which have not been imposed on other producers.  Under normal conditions, oysters must either be eaten live or cooked in order to be safe. However, post-harvest processes involve treatments to the oysters that kill and then preserve them in a state similar to raw. It is widely held that these processes change the taste, texture, and color of the oysters.

Additionally, according to Michael Voisin, the co-chairman of the Gulf Oyster Industry Council and owner of a post-harvest processing plant, post-harvest processing usually doubles or triples the cost of an oyster.

"We are not aware of the reason for departing from an agreement that has provided extensive education to consumers, and has also resulted in significant advancements in our regulatory approach to the oyster industry," Secretary Levine said.  "Our public health sanitarians are extremely thorough in their efforts to sample and monitor oyster production in our state to ensure the safety of our oysters."

For more than 10 years, the FDA worked closely with both states and the Interstate Shellfish Sanitation Conference, the organization that represents almost all oyster producers. The organizations co-developed extensive plans to both manage the safety of oysters during harvesting and transportation and to educate people who are at a higher risk of contracting a food-borne illness, such as those with conditions or diseases that have resulted in a compromised immune system.

The industry recently began refrigerating all oysters for half shell consumption within five hours of harvest during the summer months (June through September) and that time was expected to decrease to two hours within the next year. All menus in establishments that serve raw oysters and all products that contain raw oysters in Louisiana are required to specifically state that raw oysters can be dangerous to your health. 

"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," added Levine.  "Our legislature this year passed a law requiring labeling of imported seafood for the very reason that the FDA has not yet captured this threat."

According to Al Sunseri, Chairman of the Louisiana Oyster Task Force and owner of P&J Oyster Company of New Orleans, voting delegates of the ISSC voted unanimously last week to keep intact the current Vibrio vulnificus management plan involving strict refrigeration requirements of harvested oysters.

Also, ISSC delegates voted unanimously to recommend that FDA conduct a full-fledged cost-benefit study, including a consumer acceptance study, before any proposed Vibrio management guideline change, as the agency would be required to do before any regulation change requiring post-harvest processing.

Vibrio vulnificus is a bacteria that can be found in oyster-growing waters, particularly during warmer months. As a result of the possible presence of this bacteria, there may be a risk associated with consuming raw shellfish, as is the case with other raw protein products. People with chronic illness of the liver, stomach, or blood, or who have other immune disorders, should eat these products fully cooked.

Louisiana ranks first in the nation in terms of pounds harvested and monetary value as part of the domestic oyster harvest. The total economic impact of the state’s oyster industry is $318 million a year, and 3,565 Louisianians are employed by the industry.

"I am shocked that a federal agency that has turned a blind eye on inspections of foreign seafood imports would impose radical restrictions on an industry that has provided a safe, quality product for generations," Secretary Barham said.

Barham added that "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 capacity to post-harvest process the volume of oysters our fishermen bring to the dock is not in place and would be virtually impossible to put in place within the FDA’s timetable."

The Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals’ Molluscan Shellfish Program works year-round with the state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries and the Louisiana Oyster Task Force to help ensure the safety of the state’s oyster-growing areas. Through a wide spectrum of oyster water inspection, sampling and testing programs using FDA guidelines, the state and its partners ensure safe, high-quality product is available for consumers nationwide.

The Task Force also helps educate consumers about the proper handling and safe consumption of oysters, including warnings for immune-compromised people not to consume raw oysters and raw oyster products.

To help ensure safety of oyster-growing waters, the Molluscan Shellfish Program:

  • Collects 800 oyster-growing water samples per month from throughout the Louisiana Gulf Coast and into the Gulf, to look for bacteria that might be hazardous to oyster-growing areas.
  • Collects oyster meat samples prior to the opening or reopening of areas that may have been closed for adverse weather events or manmade disasters.
  • Conducts hundreds of camp surveys, shoreline surveys and marina surveys each year to identify potential pollution point sources and assess oyster-growing areas for potential hazards from sewage discharges, wild animal and bird populations, marina waters or any other pollutants that may affect the state’s oyster-growing areas.

The Louisiana Department of Health strives to protect and promote health statewide and to ensure access to medical, preventive and rehabilitative services for all state citizens. To learn more about LDH, visit http://www.dhh.louisiana.gov.