July 24, 2016

food safety

New Way to Make Raw Oysters Safe: Radiation

Art Levy | 9/1/2009

On average, more than four people die in Florida each year after eating raw oysters. Typically, what kills them is a naturally occurring organism called vibrio vulnificus. Food scientists know that either cooking or freezing the oyster kills the bacteria, but it also kills the oyster, which can affect its texture and taste.

Steve Otwell
Researcher Steve Otwell says the radiation process is safe. [Photo: UF/IFAS/Marisol Amador bottom]
The state Department of Agriculture has licensed Food Technology Service of Mulberry to try something different. By the end of the year, the company, using equipment at its Polk County plant, will be the first in the nation to treat raw oysters with radiation.

“The thing that’s really exciting to us is that all the other processes that are out there that reduce vibrio vulnificus to non-detectable levels — those that are proven and validated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration — all kill the oyster,” says Alan Peirce, bureau chief of the state’s Bureau of Aquaculture Environmental Services. “The interesting thing about the radiation is that the oyster is alive, so you can still serve a very high-quality live oyster product.”

Steve Otwell, a researcher at the University of Florida’s Aquatic Food Products Lab, which researched the process, says the method is safe for consumers because it specifically targets the dangerous bacteria. Adds Richard Hunter, president and CEO of Food Technology Service: “This stuff, the vibrio vulnificus, is very easily destroyed with very low doses of radiation.”

About 70% of his company’s work, Hunter says, now involves treating medical devices with radiation, with the rest coming from irradiating ground beef and tropical fruit. Previously called Vindicator, the company began using its gamma-ray process in 1985. During the 1990s, some of its products, including irradiated strawberries, drew protests over long-term health concerns, but the process is FDA-approved and safe, says Hunter, a former deputy health officer with the state Department of health.

Oyster-Eating Deaths
Over the last 11 years, 47 Floridians have died from oyster-related vibrio vulnificus.
Year Deaths
1998 9
1999 9
2000 3
2001 6
2002 1
2003 3
2004 4
2005 3
2006 2
2007 4
2008 3
Source: Florida Department of health, Food and Waterborne Disease Program
“My background is in detection and prevention of food-borne illness,” he says, “so I really think this has some significant public health benefits.”

Restaurants are not required to notify customers that oysters are irradiated. [Photo: iStock]

Tags: Southwest, Healthcare

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