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FDA postpones raw oyster ban

By Rory Harrington , 16-Nov-2009
Last updated on 16-Nov-2009 at 11:25 GMT

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has back-tracked on its plans to ban the sale of raw oysters from the Gulf of Mexico during warm months amid mounting industry and political pressure.

The food safety watchdog said Friday it recognised the legitimacy of concerns voiced by a wide range of trade bodies and local politicians from the US Gulf States as it announced it would review last month’s decision to impose post-catch treatment of certain raw oysters in warmer months from 2011. The body said the food safety measure would“substantially reduce” the estimated 30 deaths annually from the Vibrio vulnificus bacteria.

Delay

But the barrage of criticism it faced in the weeks following tabling of the proposal resulted in Friday’s re-think.

“Since making its initial announcement, the FDA has heard from Gulf Coast oyster harvesters, state officials, and elected representatives from across the region about the feasibility of implementing post-harvest processing or other equivalent controls by the summer of 2011,” said a FDA statement. “These are legitimate concerns.”

The body added: “It is clear to the FDA from our discussions to date that there is a need to further examine both the process and timing for large and small oyster harvesters to gain access to processing facilities or equivalent controls in order to address this important public health goal.”

The US government agency said it would now carry out an independent study to assess how “post-harvest processing or other equivalent controls could be feasibly implemented in the Gulf Coast in the fastest, safest and most economical way”, before pushing ahead with the issue. It gave no deadline for any action but merely said it would meet with its board in March 2010.

In the meantime, the FDA said it was looking forward “to working with Gulf Coast officials and industry to accomplish the goal of protecting consumers from Vibrio vulnificus in a manner that is feasible and minimizes impacts on the oyster industry”.

Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu, whose state is a major oyster producer, welcomed the move, saying. "By reversing course, the FDA has acknowledged that its original plan was unreasonable and that we need a commonsense approach to protecting the small number of at-risk consumers.”

Public health versus private interest

But the decision has also met with fierce criticism - with the Center for Science in the Public Interest saying it meant “public health had lost out to the politics of special interests”.

“Unfortunately this political victory for the Gulf Coast oyster industry is a health tragedy for their customers, and the action condemns scores of consumers to serious illness and death from this potent pathogen,” said the consumer advocate group. “This small portion of the shellfish industry should not have a free pass from FDA to sell adulterated and potentially deadly oysters to the public.”

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