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Louisiana Restaurant Association urges members to weigh in on proposed oyster ban

METAIRIE La. The Louisiana Restaurant Association said Wednesday it is urging its members and others to contact lawmakers to express their views on a planned federal ban of sales of untreated raw oysters from the Gulf of Mexico.

The proposal, announced earlier this month by the Food and Drug Administration, would ban sales of raw oysters that are not treated for a potentially deadly bacteria. Some restaurant operators already use pasteurized raw oysters, but a significant number of restaurants get oysters directly from fishermen and say the cost of using treated oysters would be prohibitive and affect the product's flavor.

“Restaurateurs, fisherman and the public are encouraged to call their members of Congress and the White House comment line at (202)456-1111 with feedback regarding the recent news of the FDA guidelines to require post-harvest processing (pasteurization) of Gulf oysters from April to October,” Wendy Waren, the LRA’s vice president of communications, said in a statement.

LRA officials said they are crafting an official response to the proposal.

The government says about 15 Americans die annually from eating raw oysters infected with Vibrio vulnificus, which is found in warm coastal waters – especially the Gulf – from April and October. The deaths occur mostly among people with weak immune systems linked to liver or kidney disease, cancer, diabetes or Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome.

“Seldom is the evidence on a food safety problem and solution so unambiguous,” said Michael Taylor, an FDA senior advisor during an Oct. 17 presentation to the Interstate Shellfish Sanitation Conference in Manchester, N.H.?

He said post-harvest processing, or PHP, technologies since the mid-1990s have been used to eliminate the risk of vibrio infection. “They include individual quick freezing with frozen storage, high hydrostatic pressure, mild heat and low-dose gamma irradiation,” Taylor said. “And when they are used, the bacteria are killed and reduced to non-detectable levels. The risk is very substantially reduced.”

Since 2003, California has barred Gulf oysters from entering the state unless they have undergone post-harvest processing, he said.

“The results were stark,” Taylor added. “Between 1991 and 2001, 40 deaths had occurred in the state due to Vibrio vulnificus. Once PHP was required, the number of deaths dropped to zero, and has remained there for the last six years, with the only possible case during that entire period being investigated as we meet today. Post-harvest processing — as required by California — has largely eliminated Vibrio vulnificus-related deaths and illness from consuming raw oysters.”

Vowing to oppose the FDA plan were several members of Louisiana’s congressional delegation, including Sens. Mary Landrieu, D-La., David Vitter, R-La., and Rep. Charlie Melancon, D-La.

In a press release, Landrieu said that the state’s oyster industry employs 3,500 and has an estimated $318 million impact on the state.

“While the FDA’s goal of protecting consumers from oyster-related illnesses is necessary, this regulation is not the appropriate response,” she said. “The FDA’s plan would severely burden Louisiana’s oyster industry, putting independent fishermen and mom-and-pop oyster dealers out of business at a time when our economy is facing many challenges.

Landrieu said that last year, there were more than 87 million cases of food-related illnesses, 371,000 hospitalizations and 5,700 deaths. However, only 15 individuals with pre-existing conditions died from eating raw oysters last year.

“The FDA has bigger fish to fry and should let our seafood industry continue to educate consumers about the risks associated with eating raw products. Imposing burdensome federal regulations that may take away 3,500 much-needed jobs in Louisiana is not the answer,” Landrieu said.

Contact Ron Ruggless at [email protected]

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