If a Washington-based consumer advocacy group has its way, supermarkets, restaurants and other places selling molluskan shellfish will have to post signs warning that raw or partially cooked oysters, clams or mussels may cause "acute illness and even death" from microbiological contamination in certain high-risk individuals.
Those individuals considered to be at greatest danger of food poisoning include people with cancer, diabetes, liver disease, alcoholism, AIDS and kidney disease.
Public Voice for Food & Health Policy recently petitioned the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to mandate the cautionary labels in order to counter what it calls inadequate government regulation of certain shellfish species.
"As long as consumers are not being warned, they will continue to believe that raw or partially cooked shellfish is a safe food when there is evidence that it is not," said Ellen Haas, Public Voice executive director and a seafood industry critic.
An FDA spokesman said that the group's petition was under consideration and there was no timetable for a decision.
If adopted, however, such a step could be ruinous for shellfish interests because the language is likely to frighten away healthy consumers as well as those with the relevant illnesses.
One seafood industry representative called the Public Voice proposal "irresponsible." "We don't like the message that a warning label sends, namely, that government cannot assure the safety of the product," said Tim Smith, executive director of the ,, Pacific Coast Oyster Growers Association, whose 120 members produce about 30 percent of America's oysters. "We disapprove of the idea of placing the consumer in the role of [food safety] regulator."
Currently, there is no comprehensive, mandatory seafood inspection program. Sales of oysters, clams and mussels are overseen by the Interstate Shellfish Sanitation Conference, a quasi-governmental body that includes representatives of the seafood industry as well as state and federal agencies. Critics say that the conference does not do enough to force states to monitor water at shellfish-harvesting sites for industrial pollutants sewage.
At a recent meeting in Florida, the Shellfish Sanitation Conference responded to Public Voice's call for warning labels by drafting a consumer informational message that could be used by markets and restaurants, said Karl Turner, executive director of the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board in New Orleans.
The conference's proposed message reads: "These shellfish [oysters, clams or mussels] have been harvested and handled according to strict government safety and sanitation standards. However, as with some other raw foods, if you suffer from chronic liver disease, immune system deficiency or stomach disease, then you should eat your shellfish cooked."
Ms. Haas said the industry's voluntary plan was inadequate because "only those purveyors that choose to carry the statement will display it."