More than a billion oysters are harvested each year from the Gulf of Mexico. They're fried, broiled, barbecued, served Rockefeller and sucked down raw throughout the country.
Nearly all the oysters consumed in the U.S. are farmed from cultures. And refrigeration makes them safe to eat year-round.
But there is something to the old saying that oysters should only be consumed in months where the name includes an "R" (i.e. not in the summer): It is a bacteria called vibrio vulnificus.
Of the very many people who eat those oysters, it is a pretty small subset -- 15 per year in the United States, on average -- who die from the bacteria vibrio vulnificus, which can become concentrated in oysters harvested in the summer and eaten raw. Another 15 suffer permanent health problems, from kidney failure to amputations.
Those 15 deaths are enough for the Food and Drug Administration to announce this month that starting in 2011, it will ban the sale of oysters harvested between April and October from the Gulf of Mexico that have not been treated -- essentially pasteurized -- to rid them of the vibrio bacteria.
The ban goes too far, according to Mike Voison, whose family has been in the oyster business in Louisiana since the 1700s.
Voison's forbears pried oysters out of the Gulf muck with 15-foot-long tongs. Today, he employs 200 people harvesting oysters and treating them in one of the few plants that pasteurize Gulf oysters.
Voison said there are not enough plants to pasteurize all the oysters harvested during the summer and the ban will drive up costs.
"Just overnight, they decided they were going to require post-harvest process," said Voison.
He argued that the numbers of people affected by vibrio and the fact that most people at risk already have a compromised immune system make it an issue of educating people about their own health risks.
"We shouldn't be saying it's the oysters' fault, we should be educating that at-risk consumer," said Voison.
Who's Responsible If You Get Sick From Oysters?
They agree with Voison at Johnny's Halfshell, a high-end restaurant in Washington, D.C., which, as its name suggests, serves raw oysters year-round.
Oysters are delivered almost daily on ice from both coasts, according to owner John Fulchino. He prefers cold water oysters from Canada, Washington state and the Northeast. But he opposes any sort of pasteurization requirement because it affects the taste of the oyster.
He says he loses money on the cold water oysters, even though they cost around $27 for a dozen served raw.
"The process is going to, basically, provide a little heat to kill the bacteria and affect the individual flavors," said Fulchino. "It is ever-so-slightly cooked and the oyster is going to lose something -- that raw, beautiful, ever-so-saline character."
Saline character for the masses is less important to the FDA than the very few people who might get sick from oysters. The FDA decision, announced this month in New Hampshire at the International Shellfish Sanitation Conference, follows on a similar rule instituted in California in 2003. There have not been any deaths in California from vibrio vulnificus infection since.
Michael Taylor, a senior adviser to the FDA commissioner on food policy, announced the new rule.
"The education effort has been tried and failed," Taylor said in an interview.
He pointed to diabetics, who are among those most at risk of becoming sick from vibrio. As many as a quarter of the people who have diabetes are unaware of their condition.
"The important thing is that these are preventable," Taylor said. "If there is a technology that is reasonably available and can reasonably be used, it needs to be implemented," he said.
Whether the technology is available and reasonable is where he and Voison part ways.
FDA Oyster Rule to Improve Safety
Fights like the one between the FDA and oyster producers could be a sign of things to come. The oyster rule comes from existing authority at the FDA, but Taylor, along with the Obama administration, advocate a much more active FDA.
"Our system of government oversight is very antiquated. It is designed to react, when customers and experts agree that we should be working to prevent problems," he said.
After nationwide scares from tainted peanut butter and tomatoes, President Obama created a special task force in March to study ways to improve food safety.
When that group released its findings this summer, it predicted: "In the coming months, at President Obama's direction, the U.S. government will take long overdue action to protect American families from food-borne illness.
This action includes new rules and standards to reduce dangerous infections caused by Salmonella and E. coli O157:H7, better approaches to outbreak response, and vastly improved federal coordination of food safety efforts."
Congress is considering legislation that would drastically broaden the scope and power of the FDA. Beyond the 15 people that die from vibrio each year, 5,000 more die from other food borne illnesses and 325,000 are hospitalized.