Photo by j_bary/Flickr CC
On November 13, the FDA announced indefinite postponement of rules requiring raw oysters from the Gulf of Mexico to undergo postharvest processing to destroy their content of Vibrio vulnificus, a particularly nasty "flesh-eating" bacterium. According to accounts in the New York Times and in industry newsletters, the FDA caved under pressure from the oyster industry and members of Congress representing oyster-harvesting regions in the Gulf.
The FDA has been trying for years to get the oyster industry to clean up its act and use post-harvest technologies to sterilize oysters in order to prevent the 15 or so deaths they cause every year. The technologies include quick freezing, frozen storage, high hydrostatic pressure, mild heat, and low dose gamma irradiation. When used, the methods reduce bacteria to undetectable levels and deaths from Vibrio vulnificus infections to zero. As the FDA puts it, "seldom is the evidence on a food safety problem and solution so unambiguous."
The FDA took action on October 16. It wrote a letter to the industry announcing the new rules. It would expect oyster producers to use the techniques, especially on oysters harvested in summer months when bacteria levels are higher. It also issued a background paper on why the techniques are needed, a fact sheet on oyster hazards, and a Q and A on the new policy.