The immediate threat of a ban on summertime oysters has subsided. After Southern politicians kicked up a fuss this month, the Food and Drug Administration put proposed regulations on hold for more study. But in New Orleans, restaurateurs remain nervous. Oysters are a hallmark of local cuisine — and many chefs fear that treating the shellfish to kill bacteria will ruin their special fare.
Last month, the FDA proposed a ban on raw or untreated oysters during the “summer months,” a period that stretches from April to October. The FDA and the Centers for Disease Control say that harmful bacteria are found in shellfish in higher amounts during that time. The federal government’s solution? Treat the oysters with at least one of several possible post-harvest treatments — water baths, freezing, pasteurization or irradiation. The result? A product that many say would cost roughly two to three times more and taste different.
CJ Casamento, owner of Casamento’s Restaurant in New Orleans, said he could taste a big difference between pasteurized and untreated oysters. “They tasted like rubber. If I would’ve served those, I would’ve lost my customers,” Casamento said.
In Washington, the winning — or stalling — argument was partly economic. In Louisiana alone, oyster farming and distributing is a $318-million business that employs 3,500 people. No one wanted to risk those jobs, least of all Louisiana politicians, including Sens. Mary Landrieu, D-La., and David Vitter, R-La. Both spoke out against the proposed ban, and Vitter introduced a bill to cut the FDA’s funding on the issue. The FDA retreated for now.
Last year, 15 people in the United States died of illnesses or reactions that can be traced directly to untreated oysters. The most common bacteria found in oysters is the Vibrio vulnificus bacteria that causes a gastrointestinal illness among other symptoms, and may be deadly, especially for at-risk consumers. Raw oysters should not be eaten by those with an autoimmune disease or by those who are highly susceptible to illness and bacteria. The FDA requires all establishments that sell raw oysters to post a warning sign saying just that.
Oyster Industry Questions Proposed FDA Ban
While restaurant owners regret any oyster-related illnesses, many in the business are skeptical of the proposed regulations. They wonder why so relatively few deaths would cause a dramatic shift in regulations while other food-safety issues, such as salmonella and E. coli, plague more wide-reaching industries.
Louisiana restaurant owners don’t believe the push to change oyster harvesting is going away — and many believe the push is linked to other movements to control food.
“There is a connection between the FDA and the Center for Science and the Public Interest, a group that is trying to ban the junk food and sodas in school, post nutrition information in restaurants, ban MSG, etc.,” said Wendy Waren of the Louisiana Restaurant Association. Sal Sunseri, co-owner of P&J Oyster Company in the French Quarter of New Orleans holds a similar theory, saying that the CSPI caught the ear of the FDA and got the ball rolling.
The Center for Science and the Public Interest is a consumer advocacy organization that focuses on several different areas of food issues, including nutrition, alcohol issues and food safety concerns, said David Plunkett, senior staff attorney for the food department at CSPI. He explained that the dangers of untreated oysters have been on the group’s radar since 1998, when the organization first brought the Vibrio vulnificus bacteria in oysters to the attention of the FDA.
The CSPI firmly believes that the only way to protect consumers from the potentially harmful bacteria in oysters is to treat the oysters in the summer months with one of the post-harvest treatments available to processors. The treatments get rid of any Vibrio vulnificus that might be in the oysters, as opposed to freezing or refrigeration, which only stops the spread of growth.
“The oyster industry should care enough about its customers to say, ‘When we’re in season, we want to have these oysters on the market for people to enjoy them,’ ” Plunkett said. ” ‘But when the risk is high, we want our customers to be protected.’ Customers have the right to safe food, and this is about responsibility. There is something that can be done that does not affect the cost or the taste of oysters.”
Sunseri, however, is worried about what he calls an “unprecedented shift” in FDA policies regarding the oyster industry.
“It’s an unjustified unilateral approach to address health concerns for a vulnerable group,” said Sunseri, who has been active in political issues surrounding the oyster industry for years. “The unilateral approach is the most disheartening, because mostly the FDA works with the Interstate Shellfish Sanitation Conference to set the guidelines and ensure healthy, wonderful shellfish throughout the nation. This is a denial of the American public to a consume a 99 percent healthy, safe and economically important food source.”
The ISSC, a conference that promotes shellfish sanitation through state and federal cooperation, works with the FDA to set industry regulations. It came up with the 2001 regulations that remain in place today and do not include post-harvest processing.
P&J is the oldest oyster processing and distributing company in the United States and shucks about a quarter-million oysters per week in house. Sal Sunseri and his brother Al, who currently serves as the Louisiana representative on the Gulf Oyster Industry Council, are fifth-generation owners of the business. Their oysters go to more than 100 restaurants in the New Orleans area, but they fear their business will be a shell of what it is if the proposal resurfaces.
Those who have spoken out against this proposal say they do not want to treat their oysters after harvest, and they will not buy oysters that are not from the Gulf Coast, where the bacteria is most prevalent due to the water temperature and salinity of the Gulf.
Restaurateurs Loyal to Gulf Coast Oysters
Donald Link, co-owner and head chef at Cochon Restaurant, said he would never sell frozen oysters or oysters from anywhere but the Gulf Coast.
“I would never ever sell imported oysters, or frozen oysters or some genetically altered oyster. I would stop selling them,” Link said. “This is going to destroy the oyster business.”
Link’s two restaurants, Cochon and Herbsaint, go through 1,600 to 2,000 Gulf Coast oysters per week. Once the oysters arrive at his restaurant, he said he and his staff take all the precautions to ensure that the oysters he serves are uncontaminated.
“I know where [the oysters] come from … and I refrigerate and handle them properly,” said Link, who added that he serves the oysters within a day or two of their arrival at his door.
Though oysters are contaminated by Vibrio vulnificus before harvesting, poor handling also can lead to food-borne illnesses.
But Link calls himself and his operations “small time.” Renowned institutions such as Casamento’s on Magazine Street and Acme Oyster House on Toulouse Street sell tens of thousands of raw oysters a week.
Mike Rogers shucks more than 12,000 oysters per week at Casamento’s, a New Orleans institution. CJ Casamento, owner and lead chef, said he was never too worried about the potential ban but said it would greatly hurt his business, especially during the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in late April.
“Sixty percent of my business is oysters,” said Casamento, whose family has owned the restaurant for 90 years. “There is nothing like a Gulf Coast oyster in size and taste.”
Catherine Lyons is a writer in New Orleans.