Last month, a report issued by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) highlighted an ongoing battle between the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the oyster industry. The report, titled “Food Safety: FDA Needs to Reassess Its Approach to Reducing an Illness Caused by Eating Raw Oysters,” emphasized the need for the FDA and the oyster industry to cooperate to develop a plan to reduce the number of illnesses and deaths caused by eating raw oysters.

Read the report by clicking on the icon: oysters.pdf

Each year, more than 30 people become ill after eating raw or uncooked oysters by infections caused by the warm water-loving bacteria, Vibrio vulnificus. About half of these illnesses are fatal. Individuals with certain health conditions are more at-risk for contracting this life-threatening infection, including liver, stomach or blood disorders; cancer; diabetes; AIDS; or kidney disease.

Between 2001 and 2008, the FDA’s goal was to reduce the number of illnesses caused by eating raw oysters by 60 percent. Oysters were required to be refrigerated at a maximum of five hours after being harvested. An extensive education campaign was conducted to raise awareness about consumers who were at-risk to contract the illness.

Several shellfish processing firms in North Carolina already treat their oysters for bacteria by dipping the oysters in hot water, but without cooking them. Since 2009, David Green, a researcher at N.C. State’s Center for Marine Sciences and Technology has been trying to develop this process on a commercial scale and get it validated by the Interstate Shellfish Sanitation Conference (ISSC). Having ISSC approval would allow oyster-processing firms to use safety claims when marketing their product.

One firm that is working with the marine sciences center to get this new process validated is Green Oyster Company in Sunset Beach. (Green is not affiliated with this company). Green Oyster Company relies heavily on summer imports of shellfish from the Gulf Coast. Owner Jeff Green, who is not related to David Green, says he’s certain that his customers will be happier knowing that their oysters are safer to consume. “It might be more costly, but I’m sure that the public would be willing to spend a little more money to know that it’s a safer product.”

Having ISSC approval for this method of eliminating bacteria would help keep North Carolina oyster facilities in business if the FDA mandates the treatment of all oysters intended to be eaten raw.

Over the past decade, other technologies have been developed. Known as post-harvest processes, they eliminated bacteria while retaining the taste and texture of raw oysters that people love. The list of FDA-approved post-harvesting processes includes low temperature heat, quick freezing, high-pressure treatment and irradiation.

In 2003, California became the only state to require this post-harvest treatment of all oysters imported from the Gulf Coast during the summer—when the risk for bacterial infections is highest. Immediately afterwards, the number of V. vulnificus illnesses or deaths in the state dropped to zero.

Post-harvest processes are not without controversy: Detractors claim that it affects the taste of raw oysters, and adds extra costs to the consumer and businesses. Small production facilities, especially, would be affected by the higher financial burdens.

When the FDA suddenly announced in 2009 that it would begin requiring that oysters harvested from the Gulf of Mexico during the summer be treated to kill the bacteria, it was met with outrage from the industry. Besides adding costs, many industry officials claimed that the Gulf Coast did not have the capacity or facilities to suddenly implement the new requirements, which would effectively shut down their exports during the summer. The FDA halted its plan and ordered an independent investigation, resulting in the report published last month.

That would have been terrible for the oyster industry in North Carolina, says David Green. “We have three or four companies in North Carolina that rely solely on the summer oyster supply. A lot of people would have been out of work.”

Green says that even though the FDA has backed off their 2009 plan for now, he believes that they will still continue to push for post-harvest processing gradually over the coming years.