FDA vs. the right to eat raw oysters?

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When the Food and Drug Administration announced its plans late last month to ban the U.S. sale of raw oysters harvested during warmer months in the Gulf of Mexico, regional oystermen and connoisseurs of the shellfish alike cried foul.

As Arthur Allen points out for Slate.com, from a public health standpoint the FDA does have sound justification for the ban—some 15 people across the U.S. die each year from the wretched effects of Vibrio vulnificus, an often deadly infection caused by bacteria in raw oysters, and nearly all cases stem from oysters harvested in warm Gulf waters. (Vibrio vulnificus is most dangerous for people who already have compromised immune systems, such as patients with cancer, diabetes or other conditions.) And, Allen points out, the FDA didn’t rush to judgment on this one:

The agency first considered banning summer oysters 15 years ago but agreed first to hold a review period to see whether less drastic measures would work. The oystermen agreed to ice their catch within five hours, and seafood restaurants and stores posted signs warning of the dangers of raw oysters. Neither of these measures has reduced the infection rate. Meanwhile, beginning in 2003, California started to require all Gulf oysters sold in the state in the warm months to be pasteurized. This technology has proven effective at drastically reducing bacterial levels in the oysters. California, which saw four Vibrio deaths per year in the 1990s, has had zero since implementing the ban.

And while, for the most part the agency’s decision, which would be implemented in 2011, has been met with anger and frustration, there are members of the public supporting the cause—namely, relatives of people who’ve died as a result of eating contaminated raw oysters. Gardiner Harris at the New York Times spoke with Jennie Bourgeois, a woman whose father endured blackened skin and agonizing blisters before he ultimately died as a result of a Vibrio vulnificus infection after eating raw oysters on his 60th birthday:

“They know that in 2010, 15 people will die like my father did even though there’s a surefire way to prevent that?” Ms. Bourgeois asked. “I can’t believe that’s not illegal. Of course the F.D.A. should step in.”

While some argue that measures such as heating or pasteurizing oysters (as they do in California) do not terribly alter the taste of the shellfish, restauranteurs and oyster aficionados say raw is the only way to ensure optimal taste, and purification processes leave the shellfish rubbery. And opponents of the proposed ban point out that 15 deaths per year—across the entire country—is a tiny number, especially considering the fact that menus including oysters come with a disclaimer about the dangers of eating raw shellfish. The FDA ban is nothing short of government meddling, and a dramatic overreaction that could jeopardize the jobs of some 3,500 oystermen in the Gulf region, they argue, and bills have already been introduced in both the House and Senate challenging the ban. As Louisiana Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu told Andrew Zajac of the Los Angeles Times, “What we seek here is reasonableness.” Also speaking to Zajac, Representative Charlie Melancon, (also a Democrat from Louisiana), undermined the need for the ban:

“Divide 15 deaths by 50 states . . . it’s minuscule,” he said. “I think 15 is a pretty reasonable number.”

Unlike with previous battles between government agencies and foodies—the 2006 ban on foie gras in Chicago, and its subsequent overturn in 2008, for example—this time around the arguments hinge not on animal cruelty or overfishing, for example, but specifically on just how much risk the public should be allowed to take at the dinner table. And while, clogged arteries, diabetes and heart disease are less visible and immediate outcomes of eating certain foods compared with the quick onset of often deadly Vibrio vulnificus infections, perhaps this debate is not completely dissimilar to that about trans fat bans, or soda taxes. At what point is it the government’s responsibility to improve public health by stepping in and ensuring that we make better choices as consumers—by labeling cigarettes as dangerous and taxing them until they’re prohibitively expensive, for example? And when does personal autonomy trump? (Afterall, even if smokers now have to pay more to light up, smoking is still legal.) True, it should be the government’s responsibility to inform us when a food is potentially hazardous, but unless it’s illegal, once armed with that information, isn’t it our right to eat it anyway?