May 27, 2001

Gulf Coast Oyster Farmers Try Self-Regulation


In the days before his trip to New Orleans last March, Michael Laird could not stop talking about oysters. It had been a long time since Mr. Laird, a professor at the University of Wisconsin at Whitewater, had splurged on the squishy delight of oysters, and he could barely wait to slurp down more. The very idea made his students cringe, but Mr. Laird paid them no mind. Only a select few understood the allure.

As soon as he returned, though, Mr. Laird had to call in sick. Within two days, what had felt like the flu had become bad enough to put him in intensive care. His blood pressure fell. One by one, his organs shut down. Mr. Laird died a day later.

"It happened so quickly that everybody was just numb," said Ronald Crabb, the chairman of the business law and finance department where Mr. Laird had taught.

The oysters, it turned out, had played host to another Gulf Coast specialty, a marine organism called Vibrio vulnificus. The same shallow, warm inlets that make the Gulf of Mexico so perfect for growing sweet and plump oysters also provide the ideal breeding ground for the deadly bacteria.

The Vibrio bacterium kills nearly half of the people it infects, giving it the highest mortality rate of any foodborne illness. Almost all the cases stem from eating raw oysters from the handful of states that span the Gulf Coast like a crescent: Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas.

The Food and Drug Administration estimates that 12 million to 30 million Americans who suffer from a range of illnesses, including diabetes, AIDS and liver disease, are susceptible to infection by the bacteria. Yet because only a tiny percentage of them get sick and fewer than 20 people a year die from eating raw oysters, the industry has managed to stave off strict regulation, using political connections that spread as far and wide as a Louisiana bayou.

Now, though, the same industry leaders who once railed against tight restrictions are embracing them. Less than a decade after enlisting a cadre of Southern senators and representatives to foil similar efforts by regulators, some of the industry's most prominent businesses are backing a plan that could cost them millions of dollars or even shut them down for several months each year. No longer are they arguing that the threat, while admittedly dire on some occasions, is too small to justify regulations that would constrict the industry.

"The industry has matured," said Mike Voisin, the owner of Motivatit Seafood in Houma, La., and the co- chairman of the Gulf Oyster Industry Council, a trade group. "We don't just run to our congressman anymore."

Only about $40 million worth of oysters, a third of the nation's harvest, is pulled out of the Gulf of Mexico every year. But small as the Gulf Coast oyster industry is, its change of heart helps explain why food companies of every kind are picking up the banner of food safety not out of a sudden surge of altruism but because of the economic pitfalls of selling a risky product.

Since Vibrio vulnificus first became well known a decade ago, the price of Gulf Coast oysters has dropped nearly 30 percent, as demand has all but dried up in markets like Chicago and New York.

That free fall occurred even as oyster harvests from the Gulf diminished, according to data from Louisiana State University, challenging the axiom that a dip in supply sends prices soaring. "It really is terrible for marketing when somebody dies eating your product," said Sam D. Slavich, a fourth-generation oyster farmer. "A lot of oyster harvesters have given up."

Oyster farmers have another incentive: a threat from regulators in California, one of the industry's biggest markets, to restrict raw oysters in the summer, when the Gulf of Mexico gets bath-water warm and the bacteria flourish.

Last year, after four Californians died from eating Gulf Coast oysters, state health officials warned consumers not to eat any raw oysters from those waters. It is possible to treat an infected person, but only if the illness is caught in its initial stages and then only with large doses of antibiotics.

Given that few doctors around the country are even familiar with the disease, California health officials said that they would consider an outright ban unless businesses quickly brought down the illness rate by switching to production methods that kill lingering bacteria shortly after the oysters have been harvested.

"That, of course, is an inspiration that they have to have," said Stuart E. Richardson, head of food and drugs for the California Department of Health Services.

Industry officials said that keeping customers safe has always been a concern though education, not regulation, has been their preferred route. But because warning signs in restaurants and leaflets describing who is at risk have done little to prevent deaths, industry officials said that they were open to trying something more constraining.

In a proposal that is being considered by the Interstate Shellfish Sanitation Conference, the group of state agencies that regulates the nation's shellfish, the Gulf states will have to cut illnesses by 60 percent in the next seven years. The states will largely get to choose how they bring down the illness rate. But if they do not succeed, the industry may be required to adopt expensive pasteurization techniques like high-pressure pumps and hot-water baths, or simply stop gathering oysters from May through September, when the risk of infection is highest, a move harvesters have long opposed.

The plan still needs official approval from the states and its chances for that are unclear. Some regulators and health officials find it too aggressive and ambitious, even though the industry would shoulder most of the cost. Prices of the huge steel tanks necessary to kill bacteria with heat or pressure start around $250,000. That number can climb to more than $1 million, a considerable amount for the small family businesses that have traditionally been the cornerstone of the industry.

Even if the plan passes, some health advocates contend that it allows too much time before any of the restrictions take effect. The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer group, has petitioned the Food and Drug Administration to require immediate pasteurization of all raw oysters from the gulf, a prospect that many in the industry are not ready to accept quite yet.

In fact, a growing fear that the F.D.A. might approve the petition is pushing the industry toward change of its own design. In past years, industry officials found a sympathetic ear in their Congressional representatives, who told the agency to back off until less-controversial approaches like public education had a chance to work.

Now that such measures appear to have failed, industry officials doubt they can garner enough allies in Congress to block regulatory changes much longer.

"If nothing else seems to be working, I don't think anyone in Congress will stand up and support us simply because we're their constituents and they like us," said Chris Nelson, vice president of Bon Secour Fisheries in Bon Secour, Ala., and a member of an industry trade group. "There's a certain sense of frustration and resignation that we don't have any other options."

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