Federal officials plan to ban sales of raw oysters harvested from the Gulf of Mexico unless the shellfish are treated to destroy potentially deadly bacteria, the Associated Press reports.
The Gulf region supplies about two-thirds of U.S. oysters.
About 15 people die each year in the United States from raw oysters infected with Vibrio vulnificus, which typically is found in warm coastal waters between April and October. Most of the deaths occur among people with weak immune systems caused by health problems like liver or kidney disease, cancer, diabetes, or AIDS.
"Seldom is the evidence on a food-safety problem and solution so unambiguous," Michael Taylor, a senior adviser at the Food and Drug Administration, told a shellfish conference in Manchester, N.H., earlier this month in announcing the policy change.
Some oyster sellers say the FDA rule smacks of government meddling. The sales ban would take effect in 2011 for oysters harvested in the Gulf during warm months.
The anti-bacterial process treats oysters with a method similar to pasteurization, using mild heat, freezing temperatures, high pressure and low-dose gamma radiation.
Treated oysters are "not as bright, the texture seems different," said Donald Link, head chef and owner of the Herbsaint Bar and Restaurant in New Orleans.
"This is an area the government shouldn't meddle in," Link said. "What's next? They're going to tell us we can't eat our beef rare?"
Until the 1960s, raw oysters were rarely eaten in the summertime. (The old adage was never eat oysters in the months without an R in them.) But changes in harvest patterns and advances in refrigeration and post-harvest treatment have made the industry a year-round business. About three-fifths of the Gulf's oysters are harvested during the warm months.
The FDA contends treating oysters would not affect the taste and would save lives. In 2003, California banned untreated Gulf Coast oysters and since then the number of deaths dropped to zero. By comparison, between 1991 and 2001, 40 people died in California from the infection.
The rule would not affect oysters harvested outside the Gulf. Oysters are harvested up and down the West and East coasts, but the bacteria is not found in such high concentrations there.