Lovers of oysters on the half shell may want to indulge now, while they can. According to USA Today, a new Food and Drug Administration plan to cut deaths from one of the deadliest types of food poisoning means that soon, live US-grown oysters will become much harder to find from May to October.
"If you were a connoisseur of Gulf coast raw oysters in the summer, they won't be available to you any more," says Ken Moore, executive director of the Interstate Shellfish Sanitation Conference in Columbia, South Carolina.
At a speech before the group in Manchester, New Hampshire, on Saturday, FDA's Michael Taylor outlined the agency's plans to combat the deadly bacteria Vibrio vulnificus by requiring Gulf-raised oysters to undergo post-production processing to kill the bacteria.
Dr Taylor told the assembled state health department and shellfish industry officials that as of 2011, the agency would no longer allow fresh, live oysters from Texas, Louisiana and Florida to be sold during the warm-weather months unless they are processed.
The move will save lives, FDA believes. In 2003, the state of California banned the sale of untreated oysters from the Gulf unless they had undergone processing.
"The results were stark. Between 1991 and 2001, 40 deaths had occurred in the state due to Vibrio vulnificus. Once post-harvest processing was required, the number of deaths dropped to zero," Dr Taylor said. "Seldom is the evidence on a food safety problem and solution so unambiguous."
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, infection with Vibrio vulnificus is under-reported. Between 1988 and 2006 it tracked 900 infections from the Gulf Coast states. When the bacteria enters the bloodstream, it is fatal in about 50 per cent of cases.
FDA would require that Gulf coast oyster undergo one of four processes to kill potential bacteria:
- quick freezing
- high-pressure treatment
- mild heat, or
- low-dose gamma radiation
These technologies "can largely eliminate the risk of vibrio infection while preserving the sensory qualities of raw oysters," Dr Taylor told USA Today.