Proposed Oyster Ban Unites Local Businesses to Fight Economic Threat

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A surprise proposal by the FDA to ban the commercial harvest and sale of Apalachicola Bay raw oysters has Franklin County business and tourism leaders reeling from the implications and united in their resolve to derail the proposed economic threat.

"Will an FDA ban on harvesting oysters in Apalachicola Bay for up to eight months stop people from coming to St. George Island and Franklin County? Judging from thousands of visitors we have, we can say that they will still come because they have fallen in love with our area," said Alice Collins, owner of Century 21 Collins Realty and Collins Vacation Rentals on St. George Island.

"But will they be disappointed if one of their favorite menu items is not available or if they can't haul that bushel bag of oysters to the fire pit and roast them with their family and friends? Most definitely!"

"The Apalachicola Bay oyster has a worldwide reputation of being the finest because of its unique flavor, and people who come to our area have the expectation that they will be able to step up to the bar for a dozen raw oysters, or order them fried or baked at all the local restaurants," Collins said.

While some accommodations business owners say the proposed ban would be harmful, some in the restaurant industry here are more blunt.

"I've been in business here for 17 years and nobody has ever gotten sick off of any of our oysters," said Beverly Hewitt, owner of the Apalachicola Seafood Grill, one of a dozen restaurants in Franklin County that serves fresh Apalachicola Bay oysters.

"People come here for the oysters, they expect fresh seafood and if they have to eat imported and processed seafood while they're here, it's going to make a ghost town of Apalachicola."

Hewitt is only one of many business owners shocked by the surprise proposal that landed like a bombshell in Apalachicola, just one week before the town's biggest annual event - The Florida Seafood Festival.

"There's nothing wrong with our oysters" said Stan Norred, owner of Papa Joe's, a raw bar and seafood restaurant located in Apalachicola.

Norred, who also happens to be the 2009 Florida Seafood Festival King Retsyo, says the proposal sounds more political than practical. "Healthy people don't get sick from oysters and
sick people shouldn't eat them. It's like this: If an alcoholic with liver problems drinks alcohol and gets sick, do you ban liquor? It doesn't make sense to ban raw oysters either."

The FDA proposal came at the October 17 conference of the Interstate Shellfish Sanitation Conference (ISSC) in Manchester, New Hampshire.

At the opening of the conference, representatives from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced their plan to ban the commercial harvest and sale of raw oysters during summer months - possibly up to eight months out of the year - in an effort to reduce illness from a naturally occurring warm bacteria - Vibrio vulnificus.

The Vibrio bacteria can cause severe illness in people with weakened immune systems who come into contact with it from eating seafood from, or even swimming in, water in which the bacteria is present.

FDA's proposal would require all oysters sold between May and October undergo post-harvest processing which involves individual quick freezing with frozen storage, high hydrostatic pressure, mile heat and low dose gamma irradiation.

An expensive process, many in the industry claim the post-harvesting process also changes the flavor of the product. Some say that the FDA's belief that consumers will simply switch to processed oysters is like "claiming that people don't appreciate the difference between fresh strawberries and frozen ones."

The FDA proposal has not only shocked commercial seafood interests all along the Gulf Coast, it has stunned local business and tourism leaders - especially when they learned that the FDA officials had not analyzed the economic impacts of such a proposal.

And, considering that national unemployment hovers near 10 percent the proposed ban has many baffled and angry.

"This proposed ban would devastate our community," said Anita Grove, director of the Apalachicola Bay Chamber of Commerce. " Most every business here is in one way or another tied to oyster harvesting. It is a clean, sustainable economic resource that we have carefully preserved for generations."

Preserving and promoting the history and culture of Franklin County's resource-based commercial seafood industry is where the Franklin County Tourist Development Council (FCTDC) weighs in on the issue.

"Our seafood heritage and the availability of local seafood, particularly Apalachicola Bay oysters, are some of the primary reasons tourists visit Franklin County. The proposed ban would have a severe impact on the tourism industry," said Helen Spohrer, chairman of the FCTDC.

The Franklin County tourism industry relies heavily on an image based on its authentic commercial seafood and rustic old Florida lifestyle. In 2008, Franklin County collected $771,952.87 in bed tax revenues from visitors. Based on Visit Florida's 2008 Florida Visitor Study statistics, tourists spent approximately $11 million on lodging in Franklin County and more than $13 million on food - much of it on fresh seafood - and oysters - from Apalachicola Bay.

Local business leaders say the implications could be severe for the 1,500 people employed in Franklin County's $134 million commercial seafood industry and for the county's resource-based hospitality industry.

The seriousness of the issue is not lost on state hospitality officials either. Florida's Restaurant and Lodging Association (FRLA) is particularly aware of the potential impacts of the proposed ban.

An urgent email to all FRLA members was sent last week urging all members to protest the ban. According to FRLA Vice President Geoff Luebkemann, "the effect on our restaurants, tourism and Florida jobs will be devastating."

Florida's hospitality industry represents a 57 billion dollar industry statewide, represents 20% of the economy and 3.4 million in sales tax revenue. Employing more than 900,000 employees, the hospitality industry is Florida's largest employer. There are approximately 50 members of the FRLA in Franklin and Gulf County.

State and local government and business leaders have banded together in an effort to thwart the proposed federal ban, which, if passed, would go into effect in 2011.

The Franklin County Board of County Commissioners took action in a recent emergency meeting to join the Gulf Oyster Industry Council (GOIC) to have a bigger say in seafood regulatory issues and even directed their attorney to investigate the possibility of suing the FDA over the proposed ban.

The County Commission also directed its Tourist Development Council to assist in marketing the pro-oyster message.

That effort has already begun with the creation of flyers, stickers and email marketing messages that urge visitors and residents to learn about the issue, contact their elected officials and sign an online petition opposing the FDA proposal at GOIC's website

On a wider scale, U.S. Congressman Allen Boyd and U.S. Representative Bill Nelson have co-authored a letter of protest to the FDA, and state regulatory officials are working to schedule public workshops in the county to better educate oystermen on the importance of adhering strictly to existing regulations relating to oyster handling.

Additionally, Congressman Boyd and Senator Nelson have also each introduced legislation in the House and Senate that would prohibit the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) from using federal funds to implement any regulations that would inhibit oyster harvesting in the Gulf Coast during the months of May to November.

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