Research Shows Economic Feasibility of New Consumer Protections

WASHINGTON - The Center for Science in the Public Interest, the Consumer Federation of America, Public Citizen, and Safe Tables our Priority today urged the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to take immediate action to protect consumers from raw oysters contaminated with deadly bacteria. CSPI called on the agency to require oyster processors to eliminate Vibrio vulnificusbacteria before selling their products. Effective treatments include cool pasteurization or hydrostatic pressure, neither of which affects oyster quality.

     “FDA’s failure to require processors to make shellfish safer means consumers face another season of unnecessary risk,” said Darren Mitchell, a senior food-safety attorney for the Center for Science in the Public Interest. “In the past two years, 36 consumers have died after eating contaminated oysters. The summer 2000 harvest is about to begin, and, if the FDA doesn’t take action soon, we can expect many more consumer deaths this year.”

     Since 1989, at least 119 deaths and an additional 106 illnesses have been attributed to Vibrio vulnificus-contaminated raw oysters and other shellfish, mostly from the Gulf Coast. Vibrio vulnificusis especially dangerous for people with diabetes, AIDS, gastric and blood disorders, and liver disease. However, many of those who became ill had no diagnosed condition. The bacterium can cause diarrhea in even healthy adults.

     Citing a new report by the Research Triangle Institute (RTI), CSPI maintains that the economic benefits of requiring these safety treatments would greatly outweigh the economic impact on the oyster industry. According to the FDA, the annual cost of Vibrio vulnificus-related deaths and illnesses from raw shellfish is approximately $120 million. In comparison, the RTI estimates that the regulatory change urged by CSPI would cost the shellfish industry about $14 million. In their report, RTI economists concluded that the widespread adoption of one of the treatment technologies would, in fact, save the oyster industry $2 million annually by reducing labor costs.

     “Even the staunchest critic of government regulation would be forced to concede that this case presents an economic ‘no-brainer,’” stated Mitchell.

     Currently, the shellfish industry is regulated primarily by the states. In their letter to Commissioner Jane Henney, the groups urged the FDA not to rely on the Interstate Shellfish Sanitation Conference (ISSC), a state/industry group that sets consumer-protection policy for the shellfish industry. Past efforts by the ISSC to control Vibrio vulnificus through post-harvest-refrigeration and consumer-education campaigns have failed to stop the deaths and illnesses. The problem arises every summer when warmer waters promote bacterial growth.

     “More that half the people who contract a blood infection fromVibrio vulnificus suffer an excruciating death, and even some of those who survive suffer lifelong debilitating injuries, including amputation,” said Mitchell. “Clearly, the FDA would be negligent if, instead of taking immediate action, it continues to rely on the Interstate Shellfish Sanitation Conference to correct the Vibrio vulnificus problem.”