Friday, November 6, 2009

Florida officials react to proposed federal oyster ban

Some Florida elected officials this week urged the U.S. Food and Drug Administration not to ban raw oysters from the Gulf of Mexico during warmer months.

The FDA proposes banning the sale of raw oysters unless the shellfish are treated to destroy bacteria that are potentially deadly to certain risk groups. But Agriculture Commissioner Charles H. Bronson said treatment options are limited and some people don't like the treated oysters.

Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., and Rep. Allen Boyd, D-Monticello, were among the congressmen from Gulf Coast states who this week filed legislation to block funding for the federal proposal, which seafood industry officials say threatens their livelihoods.

“The FDA has gone overboard in proposing a ban on raw oysters,” Nelson said. “It’s like trying to kill a gnat with a sledgehammer. Well, there's some of us in the Senate that are going to try to not let this happen."

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., according to the Associated Press.

Bronson sent a letter to the FDA on Wednesday asking the agency to withdraw its proposal. And he talked about the proposal this week before House committees at Florida's capitol.

"You can make every law in the world but I don't think you are going to be able to overcome personal responsibility," Bronson told the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Committee on Wednesday. "This is a little bit of an overstep. We're asking them to reconsider their decision on this."

His department has scheduled a series of workshops beginning Nov. 30 on a previous state proposal for more stringent oyster handling requirements that include quicker removal from the water and cooling in processing plants. For more information, click here.

On Tuesday, Bronson told the House Natural Resources Appropriations Committee that he thinks the FDA proposal could create black market for those who still want fresh oysters. "There will be more of a chance of getting people sick that way," Bronson said.

Rep. Leonard Bembry, D-Greenville, said he was concerned about oyster beds being closed to harvesting as a result of the ban and possible state budget cuts on oyster testing.

State Rep. Jimmy Patronis, R-Panama City, said the federal proposal would "dissolve the economy" of Franklin County, where 95 percent of Florida's oysters are harvested from Apalachicola Bay.

(Story and photo copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission.)

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