When someone is conspicuously absent at work or taking an unusually long time in the restroom, "bad oysters" are often pegged as the culprit. And according to data from the Centers for Disease Control, it's pretty fair to assume that they might be incidences of illness from the Vibrio vulnificus bacteria—commonly contracted from raw oysters—which increased by 41 percent between 1996 and 2005. In fact, they've been at an all-time high over the past few years.
Hell hath no fury on your weekend plans like a bad batch of dollar oysters during Friday happy hour.
But now, the Food and Drug Administration is being sued for failing to protect us hedonistic shellfish-slurpers from ourselves—or more accurately, from the threat of gastrointestinal distress.
Filed by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the lawsuit alleges that the agency has violated the Food Safety Modernization Act and inadvertently led to the unnecessary deaths of at least 15 people every year by failing to adequately regulate shellfish for raw consumption, according to Food Safety News.
President Obama signed the Food Safety Modernization Act, which includes a variety of measures for preventing food borne illness rather than simply containing it, into effect in January 2011. The FDA refers to it as "the most sweeping reform of our food safety laws in more than 70 years," but if the CSPI has anything to say about it, the act isn't fulfilling its duties when it comes to us all getting shucked.
"The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) should stop dragging its feet and act on a four-year-old petition urging the agency to regulate deadly bacteria in shellfish harvested in Gulf Coast waters and sold for raw consumption," read the lawsuit, filed in late May. "Without this safety standard, in the next year, an estimated 30 people will become seriously ill, and 15 of them will die, after consuming raw shellfish that contain the bacteria, called Vibrio vulnificus (V. vulnificus)."
Common symptoms of infection by the bacteria include the usual suspects—nausea, diarrhea, all that fun stuff—but more severe cases can lead to blood poisoning, amputation, and even death.
So why hasn't the FDA put more effort into ensuring the safety of shellfish? Good question. The lawsuit alleges that the answer is industry pressure, which is a powerful thing. Plus, with bigger fish to fry (pun intended) like the GMO debate, the threat of bioterrorism, and the dangers of antibiotic overuse in animal agriculture, the FDA may have other priorities.
But more than 300 deaths between 1989 and 2010 have been attributed to the bacteria, and the CSPI argues that "the technology to eliminate or reduce V. vulnificus while preserving the texture and flavor of raw oysters is readily available."
Julie Murray, the Public Citizen attorney who is at the helm of CSPI's case against the FDA, calls the FDA's negligence "unconscionable."
READ MORE: What I Learned as a Master Oyster Shucker
The FDA is prohibited from commenting on legislation that is pending, but the agency must respond to the complaint before July 25.
So what does the CSPI want, exactly? They're hoping for a federal court order that will expedite a decision on the four-year-old petition to impose stricter regulations for raw oysters and shellfish that's currently pending with the FDA.
And if you're an oyster lover, you'd better hope they hurry. The potentially deadly bacteria is more commonly found in shellfish during warmer months. And what about our summer seafood platters? What of them?
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