Center for Science in the Public Interest

I. Executive Summary
II. Introduction
III. The FDA Plays Politics With Public Health
IV. The FDA is Charged With Protecting Consumers Against Unsafe Foods
V. The FDA Should Establish Standards Through A Fair And Impartial Process
VI. The ISSC Process Is Anything But Fair And Impartial
VII. The Shellfish Industry Has "Captured" The ISSC Process
VIII. How The FDA And ISSC Failed To Protect Consumers
IX. Timeline
X. Conclusions And Recommendations
XI. Endnotes

How The FDA and ISSC Failed to Protect Consumers

The FDA has asserted that, despite its participation in the ISSC, it still has authority to take unilateral action to ensure the safety of shellfish shipped in interstate commerce.(78) In formal legal terms, that may be true. In practice, however, the FDA behaves as though it has little power over shellfish-safety policy.

The Gulf Coast shellfish industry is small-government data value the region’s annual oyster harvest at approximately $40 million dollars,(79) only half of which is sold for raw consumption.(80) (By comparison, the Gulf Coast shrimp harvest exceeds $450 million annually.(81)) During the 1990s, the peak annual Gulf Coast oyster harvest was 23.7 million pounds and by 1999 had fallen to only 14.9 million pounds.(82) Typically, Gulf Coast oysters are cheaper than those harvested in other regions, garnering approximately $2.06 per pound in 1999 as compared to the national average of $2.84 per pound.(83) One researcher found that the price of Gulf Coast oysters dropped by nearly 30 percent over the past decade, since the hazards of Vibrio vulnificus-tainted oysters first became well-known.(84)

The Gulf shellfish industry is made up predominantly of independent harvesters, many of whom have spent their whole lives as oystermen. For example, the St. Petersburg Times quoted one harvester who quit high school to harvest oysters: "My granddaddy done it, and my daddy done it."(85) "There aren’t no jobs around here, but I wouldn’t do them if there was," he added.(86) Often, workers in the Gulf Coast live in what are described as "hard-scrabble communities"(87) and view efforts to regulate their practices with suspicion. "This is the people’s bay, and the state is fixin’ to take it away," said a former harvester in response to state efforts to limit harvest.(88) Many others blame the federal government for their problems. One large Louisiana oyster broker has accused the FDA of using the Vibrio vulnificus issue to boost sales of oysters from other regions.(89) Some have turned against the victims themselves. "I’ve eaten Apalachicola oysters all my life and never been sick," said the owner of a Florida seafood restaurant.(90) "One old man with hepatitis eats one old bad oyster, and the entire country gets hysterical."(91)

The solutions acceptable to the ISSC seem to be very limited. The ISSC has tried a series of untested-and ultimately unsuccessful-educational approaches that make consumers responsible for avoiding unsafe shellfish instead of preventing industry from selling contaminated shellfish. And, some ISSC participants appear to be more concerned about sales than safety. One seafood processor and former president of the Louisiana Oyster Dealers and Growers Association has advocated a strong public relations campaign: "[W]e don’t have the money like the beef people do. We don’t have James Garner or Cybil Shepherd who say, ’Eat beef. It’s for real people.’ That’s what we need to do."(92) Even the head of the ISSC stated in 1995, "[t]his is not a public health emergency we’re talking about."(93) That mindset has prevailed at the ISSC for too long.


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