Congressman Pete Olson

Representing the 22nd District of Texas

Olson Leads the Fight in Texas to Save Coastal Oyster Jobs

November 10, 2009
Press Release

Congressman Pete Olson today joined with several of his House Colleagues that represent districts along the Gulf Coast in signing a letter urging the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to reconsider their proposed mandatory regulations on Gulf Coast oysters.  These new regulations would directly impact the Gulf Coast oyster industry and indirectly the thousands of restaurants and retailers that provide fresh oysters to the public. 

The FDA’s newly proposed regulations would require all oysters harvested out of the Gulf to be subjected to rigorous post-harvest processing to prevent Vibrio vulnificus (V.v) infections.   This mandatory process would begin in 2011 and would effectively ban the sale of any fresh, live oyster from the Gulf Coast during warm-weather months that have not been processed to FDA standards. 

“Unfortunately, these proposed regulations by the FDA are yet another example of the federal government creating an undue, job killing burden on the private sector,” said Congressman Olson.  “These new regulations would hurt thousands of jobs and small businesses in State of Texas and along the Gulf Coast at a time of an already record economic slowdown.”

Members of the oyster industry have already made great strides in reducing the number of illnesses resulting from Vibrio vulnificus by instituting voluntary practices that have reduced the incident rate by 35%.  The FDA’s own figures on incidents of V.v. infections say that less than 30 individuals on average each year are affected resulting in fewer than 15 deaths per year, primarily in already immune suppressed individuals.  These figures show that there is more of a chance to get struck by lightning than be infected by V.v.

In addition to signing a letter to the FDA, Rep. Olson cosponsored H.R. 4022, the Gulf Oyster Protection Act of 2009.  This legislation would block any funds the FDA receives from being used to implement or enforce any new rules requiring post-harvest processing treatments for oysters with regard to V.v. 

Congressman Olson concluded, “In a time of record economic uncertainty, this is an issue that has strong bipartisan support in Congress.  I encourage the FDA to do the right thing and retract their burdensome proposal that would harm so many oyster producers along the Gulf Coast.”

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Members who signed the letter include: Senators Mary Landrieu (D-LA), Bill Nelson (D-FL), Richard Shelby (R-AL), Jeff Sessions (R-AL), David Vitter (R-LA), and Reps. Rodney Alexander (R-LA), Jo Bonner (R-AL), Charles Boustany (R-LA), Allen Boyd (D-FL), Henry Brown (R-SC), Anh “Joseph” Cao (R-LA), Charlie Melancon(R-LA), Jeff Miller (R-FL), Pete Olson (R-TX), Mike Rogers (R-AL), Steve Scalise (R-LA), Gene Taylor, (D-MS) and Rob Wittman (R-VA).

Complete text of the letter can be found below:

Margaret Hamburg, M.D.
Commissioner
U.S. Food and Drug Administration
10903 New Hampshire Avenue
Silver Spring, MD 20993-0002

Dear Commissioner Hamburg:

 We are writing with significant concern regarding the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) recently announced intention to “reformulate its policy on control of Vibrio vulnificus in raw molluscan shellfish” (letter from Deputy Director, Office of Food Safety, Donald W. Kraemer, Ph.D. to members of the Interstate Shellfish Sanitation Conference (ISSC), October 16, 2009).  This new policy as currently described by the Agency is disturbing in both its content and means of development and implementation.  We are requesting the FDA stop any plans for policy change relative to Vibrio vulnificus (V.v.) and continue working cooperatively within the ISSC towards its goal of a 60% reduction in V.v. illnesses through continued implementation of the V.v Management Plan.

 On October 17, 2009 the FDA further advised the ISSC that it intends to unilaterally change the seafood HACCP guidance document regarding V.v.  This requirement would prevent traditional raw oysters from the Gulf of Mexico states from being served in the United States for over half of the year.  The suggested change would force the oyster community to implement mandatory post harvesting processing, using methods such as mild heat treatment, freezing, high pressure and low-dose gamma radiation. 

 The Gulf Coast oyster community provides two-thirds of the nation’s oysters and has a $500 million annual economic impact.  The oyster community is already one of the most regulated food groups in the United States.  On average, the V.v. infection rate from the consumption of raw Gulf Coast oysters is extremely rare and does not occur in the general population.  The ISSC in conjunction with the FDA and its members have worked very hard to formulate and improve plans to reduce V.v. illnesses from raw shellfish. 

 In 2001 the ISSC established the Vibrio vulnificus Management Plan.  FDA was intimately involved in the development of this Plan.  FDA also concurred at that time and on several later occasions with the adoption and implementation of illness control measures in the Plan.  In May 2010 the Plan requires implementation of measures which will ensure, at a minimum, a 60% reduction in V.v. illness rates compared to a baseline rate of illness. 

This V.v. illness reduction plan in conjunction with the previously implemented Vibrio parahaemolyticus illness reduction plan required Gulf oyster harvesters and dealers to invest substantially in on-board refrigeration systems.  In many cases, dealers and harvesters have already invested in new on-board or dockside refrigeration or icing systems and are upgrading or replacing their existing refrigeration systems.  The cost to harvesters and dealers is substantial.  The new post-harvest processing the FDA plans to require renders these investments useless.  If all oysters are required to be post-harvest treated, then there would be no purpose in implementing expensive and logistically challenging new time-to-refrigeration requirements currently taking place in the Gulf as per the Vibrio vulnificus control plan.   

In the development of the Plan, the FDA provided the Gulf States with a Vibrio vulnificus Risk Calculator.  This FDA calculator has been a useful tool allowing state shellfish regulators and oyster community members to determine the best way for their state to meet the illness reduction goals of the ISSC.  This calculator would also be rendered useless should all products require post-harvest processing.

 Many of the Gulf State’s shellfish regulatory agencies and oyster community members have already begun implementation of procedures and processes to further reduce V.v. illnesses.  The ISSC fully expected the FDA to support these activities in accordance with the agreements they had made within the ISSC.  Instead the FDA has proposed this unilateral action effectively banning Gulf raw oysters, abandoning their commitment to working with the cooperative framework of the ISSC.  This decision is not consistent with the work that has been done by the FDA and the ISSC for more than two decades and threatens to undermine efforts to address future public health challenges.  For many reasons, the Agency’s sudden policy change in this regard does not make sense.

We look forward to hearing from you regarding how we can work with the Agency to continue implementation of the original V. v. Management Plan.