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All You Can Eat

Trend-setting restaurants, Northwest cookbooks, local food news and the people who make them happen.

October 29, 2009 at 1:38 PM

We celebrate Northwest oysters, Louisiana’s get raw deal

Yesterday’s e-mail inbox included a note from a guy who grew up in Louisiana, lived in Seattle for 16 years and is now back in New Orleans, where yesterday’s front-page news in the Times-Picayune included this headliner: “Louisiana blasts new FDA rule requiring oysters to be sterilized to prevent rare bacterial illness.” The story said, in part:

The rule will essentially eliminate raw oysters — at least as Louisianans know them — from restaurant menus for seven months of the year. Even oysters that will eventually be cooked during those months would have to go through the same cleansing process before being added to any dish, a move some say would undermine the culinary integrity of some of New Orleans’ most famous delicacies.”

The reason behind this politically and emotionally charged move, defined by one oyster industry representative as “a nuclear bomb,” is to reduce the rare but potentially fatal bacterial illness Vibrio vulnificus, contracted by eating raw Gulf Coast oysters.

Louisiana oysters and a cold Abita, which I knocked back in New Orleans early this month.

Meanwhile, here in Seattle and throughout the Northwest, restaurants are celebrating the joys of slurping raw oysters. Special events include tonight’s oyster fete at Cafe Campagne, oyster promotions at Anchovies & Olives and Flying Fish (which just inaugurated its annual weekday oyster happy hour from 4-6 p.m.) and the upcoming Oyster New Year’s at Elliott’s Oyster House (where you can down umpteen rounds of briny bivalves November 7).

All of which might lead you to ask of that FDA ban, “Will Northwest oysters be affected?” and more importantly, “Are our oysters safe?” The short answers: perhaps and yes, according to Robin Downey, executive director of the Pacific Coast Shellfish Growers Association.

While we occasionally see an increase in oyster-related illness locally due to the naturally occuring bacterium Vibrio parahaemolyticus, “We do not have the Vibrio vulnificus virus found in warm Gulf waters,” said Downey, who represents 140 Western shellfish companies that produce 94 million pounds of live oysters a year, an $84 million business.

The Gulf oyster bacteria sickens approximately 30 people nationwide annually, resulting in about 15 deaths. Most mortalities occur in individuals with compromised immune systems caused by pre-existing health conditions affecting the liver and kidneys and diseases like cancer, diabetes, and AIDS. Those numbers, while grave, are minuscule compared to other foodborne illnesses, Downey said.

According to the Center for Disease Control, there are 76 million cases of foodborne illness annually, 325,000 hospitalizations associated with those illnesses and approximately 5000 deaths. It’s important to put that in perspective,” she said, taking into account other food types regulated by the FDA — including spinach, sprouts, eggs and beef. “They’ve established a very different standard for those foods than what they’re now going to mandate for [Gulf] oysters.”

This “very ticklish subject” has her growers and others “extremely concerned,” she said. “And our concerns can be boiled down to this: we don’t approve of the process, and we just want the same standards that applies to other foods to be applied to oysters. We shouldn’t be singled out more than any other food type.” With oysters undergoing constant and stringent monitoring, said Downey, “We’re testing water quality, toxic algae, bacteria, fecal coliform — a whole range of things including the oyster meat, and we have an extremely excellent record.”

Extremely excellent oysters, at Elliott’s Oyster House.

That record of excellence is even cited by the FDA on its Website, giving kudos to the Interstate Shellfish Sanitation Conference. The ISSC is a collaborative group including state regulators responsible for implementing regulations at the local level; members from the shellfish industry, the FDA and other federal agencies including the EPA and NOAA.

Their mission: to maintain and monitor health and safety rules and regulations, providing the consumer with safe consumption of molluskan shellfish (oysters, clams, mussels) by adhering to strict controls on growing, harvesting, processing, packaging and transport. Ironically, said Downey, “They’re touting this wonderful program in this brand-new circular, which flies in the face of this new policy mandate.”

According to a Pacific Coast Shellfish Growers Association news release, “the FDA admits they have not looked at the cost of implementing expensive new processing technologies or the infrastructure that would be needed to process all oysters currently destined for the raw oyster market, nor have they considered whether consumers would be willing to switch from raw, fresh oysters to ones that have been processed.” Current technologies for processing raw oysters include pasteurization, freezing and hydrostatic pressure as well as a newly approved method of irradiation that, say the growers, “does not kill the oyster, but may shorten its shelf life.”

At the Acme Oyster House in New Orleans, raw oysters are slurped as fast as they can shuck ’em. Ask me. I know.

Will the proposed ban on untreated Gulf Coast oysters kill not only the virus, but a thriving industry? The fear is that it may. What’s more, said Downey, oysters from other parts of the country may not be immune to the FDA’s ban for long. At the recent ISSC conference, “We were told by FDA officials that initially, they were planning to mandate post-harvest treatment of all oysters, and at the last minute they decided to just stick to Gulf oysters — for now.”

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