How much damage can government do, how much fun can it destroy, and how much freedom can it take away in the name of public health and safety? We might find out in April 2011, when a new Food and Drug Administration rule on Gulf of Mexico oysters goes into effect.
In order to prevent an extremely rare disease that affects 30 American oyster-eaters each year, the FDA will require that Gulf oysters harvested between April and October of every year be put through expensive processes that destroy their flavor and essentially preclude their being served raw.
Vibro Vulnificus is a deadly but extremely rare bacterial infection that affects oysters in warm waters. It kills about 15 Gulf oyster-eaters each year, nationwide. Each time you eat one serving of oysters from the Gulf of Mexico, your risk is a bit less than one-in-a-million of contracting V. Vulnificus, according to the Molluscan Shellfish Institute. Your chances of dying from it are half that.
For perspective, you are four times more likely to be struck by lightning. You are 100 times more likely to die in a car accident.
But that actually overstates the real risk, because your chances of getting V. Vulnificus from an oyster are much smaller if you are not already immuno-compromised -- i.e., you don't have AIDS, diabetes, hepatitis, or liver damage from excessive drinking. These conditions account for most reported cases of V. Vulnificus, and for nearly every death it has caused.
In its zeal to protect everyone from harm, the FDA does not think it sufficient to require special warnings for those at risk. Michael Taylor, senior advisor to FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg, explained in a recent speech that it is just too difficult to make these populations listen. Moreover, less intrusive measures have failed to achieve FDA's goal of reducing V. Vulnificus cases by 60 percent. As Taylor put it, "[w]e no longer believe that measures which reduce the hazard, but fall well short of eliminating it, such as improvements in refrigeration, are sufficient..."
The newly required processes will not only cost millions, but they also affect oyster quality, according to Bart Farrell, an oyster expert with the Clyde's restaurant chain. Clyde's runs The Old Ebbitt, home to the afternoon oyster happy hour and a famous hangout for anyone who's anyone in Washington. Farrell explained that the newly required post-harvesting process -- which include low-dose radiation, high pressure, or quick-freezing -- changes the taste of oysters noticeably. "By the time you're done, the oyster has absolutely no flavor," he said.
The Old Ebbitt does not serve raw oysters from the Gulf, but Farrell said that he expects the price of all oysters to skyrocket once the new regulations go into effect, just as it did in the weeks after Hurricane Katrina. "It's going to put a lot of people out of work," he said.
In the short run, a spike in oyster prices will be good news for Tom Gallivan, an oyster farmer in Virginia whose product will not be directly affected. But Gallivan told me he is not celebrating.
"We're very concerned," said Gallivan. "I don't think we see it as a market advantage, because eventually there's a lot of potential that they will come for us." If the FDA chooses to crack down on the more common but less deadly V. Parahaemolyticus bacterium, which can cause severe vomiting and diarrhea for up to ten days, it could affect oysters harvested as far north as New Hampshire, he said.
"I think the FDA is being a bit heavy-handed," said Gallivan. "Probably more people perish in traffic fatalities driving to and from oyster bars than die eating the oysters."
The government has yet to ban automobiles or cigarettes, two conveniences known to be mass-killers. But in 17 months, the FDA will nearly shut down a multi-million dollar industry, put thousands out of work, and bar millions from their passion for oysters -- all because a handful of people died who should not have been eating raw food in the first place.