Monday, February 8, 2010

More on Oysters: Is Regulation the Best Alternative?

I've gotten a good deal of feedback on a recent post regarding the risks of eating raw oysters, including a note from the author of this article from the Mobile Press-Register. The author, whose family business is in the live oyster trade, makes two comparisons that I actually find very interesting. Let's look at both.

First, he compares naturally occurring vibrio in oysters to allergens found in other foods, like peanuts. In a lot of ways, the comparison is a good one. In both cases, a significant minority of people are at risk of serious illness or death from consumption of a naturally occurring element of a food that most people can eat without much risk of illness. In both cases, the most important thing that restaurants and vendors can  do is inform customers when items contain the food in question. In both cases, medical professionals should be sure to inform their patients when they are at risk. The difference, as I see it, is two-fold.
  • For one thing, even the most severe anaphylactic reactions can usually be mitigated by immediate and appropriate medical care. There is no vibrio EpiPen. 
  • Secondly, although there are certainly individuals who have allergies they are unaware of, it seems to me more likely that individuals might be immunocompromised without knowing it. 
Nonetheless, I think the peanut comparison is a fair one. Just because there is a potential for serious harm associated with a food, that does not necessarily dictate that food's removal from the market.

The second comparison the author makes is with sugar. He suggests that restaurants and vendors offer both treated and untreated oysters, and allow consumers to choose whichever they prefer, just as with sugar and artificial sweeteners. I'm always a fan of increased choice, and I would be interested in seeing how this would play out (whether consumers would pay extra for the "safer" oysters, whether they would notice the difference at all). Obviously it would be more difficult to implement this sort of plan for oysters than for sugar. Whereas sugar and its substitutes are easily distinguishable from one another by their different colored containers, treated and untreated oysters would remain indistinguishable from one another to the naked eye, creating a high risk of careless errors by consumers, servers, vendors and chefs.

The big takeaway from all this for me is that even oyster producers like Mr. Nelson realize that the current system does not provide adequate protection for at-risk consumers. Like Mr. Nelson, I believe that "Any illness of this nature is unacceptable and warrants further efforts to minimize occurrence." I don't know whether self-regulation by oyster producers and businesses that sell raw oysters to the public will be enough to eliminate the serious risks associated with raw oyster consumption. If so, I don't see the need for additional regulation at the federal level, especially if it endangers American businesses like Mr. Nelson's. If, however, industry-initiated or state regulatory measures prove insufficient in this case as they have in so many other industries (see just about anything regulated by the USDA over the last century), then FDA regulation or the threat thereof might be the best tool for keeping American oyster-lovers safe.

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