Oyster industry foresees tighter rules

 

More closures, on-board refrigeration could be on horizon

 

Source of Article: http://www.newsherald.com/news/apalachicola_68297___article.html/oyster_industry.html

 

September 20, 2008 11:00:00 PM

By David Adlerstein

Florida Freedom Newspapers

APALACHICOLA  The Apalachicola Bay oyster industry, still the largest in Florida and a major area employer, is bracing itself for a new round of regulations to be drafted by year's end and enacted by May 2010.

The new rules, which could involve more bay closures, shorter working hours and even required on-board refrigeration methods, are on the horizon because of the Gulf of Mexico oyster industry's likely inability to meet guidelines for reducing the incidence of vibrio vulnificus in 2008.

The 16-year-old Interstate Shellfish Sanitation Conference, which promotes shellfish sanitation through cooperation of state and federal regulators, the shellfish industry and academia, agreed to rules nearly a decade ago designed to reduce the incidence of vibrio.

A pathogen found in raw oysters that is destroyed when they are cooked, vibrio can cause illness and even death among people who have chronic illnesses and eat oysters raw.

The industry met the required 40-percent reduction in vibrio illnesses during 2005-06 but likely will not meet the goal for 2007-08.

"We know we are not going to meet the 60-percent reduction goal," said David Heil, a chief aquaculture regulator with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

"It will be painful," he said. "There are things that the industry will have to do, make changes, to get there."

Following a pre-Labor Day telephone conference with representatives of the local oyster industry, Florida's representatives to this month's ISSC fall board meetings in Memphis, Tenn., presented the state's proposal.

In addition to Heil, among those present from Florida were Apalachicola Bay oyster processor Tommy Ward; Chris Brooks, administrator of shellfish classification with the state; and Dan Leonard, an industry representative who covers the region encompassing North and South Carolina, Georgia and Florida.

The Florida group presented what Heil called "a terse plan" because the final numbers are not yet in as to how much regulation will be needed.

"It was difficult for that group to say we would put this regulatory control to meet this level of illness when we don't know the illness level yet," he said. "We'll have a good idea in December and January."

 

Risk calculator

What the state contingent did propose was to rely on a recently created "Vibrio vulnificus risk calculator." This scientific formula determines what the specific effect on illness rates would be if the bay was closed for a particular stretch, if hours of harvest were curtailed or if oysters were chilled while on board boats. It also makes precise what percentage reduction would happen if a combination of these methods were employed.

"The plan said the risk calculator is a useful tool to help scientifically determine what controls might be necessary and that here are a couple examples of how the control could be used," Heil said.

The plan also considered what the effect might be of reducing time of harvest, enforcing a cooldown requirement that makes more efficient use of refrigeration in harvesting and processing, or a combination of these measures.

"They did not present at all closures or required on-board refrigeration," Heil said. "They don't know if they'll have to implement such harsh measures in order to meet the illness reduction goal. It was a very benign or minimalistic plan."

The ISSC's vibrio management committee, the technical group that received the plan, "liked the plan but they gave, as we all knew they would, additional guidance," Heil said.

The committee wants a more specific plan presented by Dec. 15 that outlines steps to be taken if the illness reduction goal is 10, 20, 30, 40 or any other percent.

The challenge the local industry has is two-fold: They must meet the vibrio reduction goals while maintaining their customer base in an industry that encompasses coastal harvesting off Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Florida.

Heil said both the Food and Drug Administration and the ISSC want uniform controls to govern the entire Gulf Coast. He said their fear is individual state closures could spawn increased production in neighboring states and would result in no lessening of vibrio exposures to the general population.

"There are a lot of nuances we have to work around and it does make a uniform regulation difficult to achieve," Heil said.

He said one option might be to allow early morning or nighttime harvesting, when the summer waters are cooler, but trim the amount of time anyone is allowed to harvest.

On the conference call earlier this month, Apalachicola seafood dealer Grady Leavins offered to donate materials to construct cooling units on boats during the warm period from May to October.

"I think it's the only way we can respond," he said. "If we ice seven months out of the year, we can work 12 months out of the year."

Heil cautioned that if such devices were mandated, regulators only would allow units proven to properly lower temperatures.

"It has to be feasible for the industry to do, and it has to bring the temperatures down," he said. "A box with ice may not do the latter. That's what research will have to do, to see if it brings it down quick."

As it stands now, the ISSC will sign off a plan by the end of December, with a timetable to implement the rules into law by May 1, 2010.

 

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