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The Oyster Is His World

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Sal Sunseri Jr.’s family business has cultivated and harvested the mighty mollusk for more than 130 years 

New Orleanians love their oysters, whether they’re battered and fried on a po’boy or slurped fresh from the shell. And nobody knows that better than Sal Sunseri Jr., whose family owns one of the city’s oldest and largest purveyors of oysters, P&J Oyster Company in the French Quarter.

Sunseri’s business ships or shucks as many as 35,000 per day to area restaurants and grocery stores. The typical “oyster season” starts in mid-October and runs through late spring, but the company sells oysters year-round. In fact, we’re still in peak season. “Now is a great time for oysters,” he says.

It’s been a banner year for Sunseri despite challenges in the oyster industry. His family, with help from author Kit Wohl, recently published The P&J Oyster Cookbook, a collection of recipes from family members and local chefs. He and his business were also prominently featured in a Capital One bank television commercial and marketing campaign.

However, Sunseri also grabbed headlines last fall as one of the leading voices against an effort by the Food and Drug Administration to ban the sale of Gulf oysters in the summer unless they were treated to kill potentially deadly bacteria harmful to those with weakened immune systems. The FDA’s proposal called for using one of several methods to treat oysters using a process similar to pasteurization or exposing them to mild heat, freezing temperatures, high pressure or low-dose gamma radiation to kill bacteria.

Foodies and oyster advocates balked, saying the process changes the taste and texture of a Louisiana delicacy. They also said the relatively low risk doesn’t justify what would be a massive (and expensive) undertaking. Roughly 15 people die each year from eating raw oysters infected with Vibrio vulnificus, which is only found in oysters harvested in warmer months. The deaths primarily occur among people with weakened immune systems caused by liver or kidney disease, cancer, diabetes or AIDS.

“It’s unjustified and unprecedented that the FDA would do this for any food group,” Sunseri says. “As an industry, we support new technologies that provide an option for at-risk groups, but don’t just take away a billion-dollar industry.”

The proposal caused an uproar among foodies and the seafood industry. While the FDA backed down, saying it would put the plan on hold for further study, Sunseri expects the issue to come up again. “We won the battle,” he says, “but they are definitely going to continue to try to restrict the consumption of Gulf oysters.”

He likens the rule change to restricting the sale of sugar, which can be deadly to diabetics. He says those who have a medical condition and are at risk when they eat oysters should use caution and seek out treated oysters that are offered as an alternative to fresh ones.

Just because the FDA backed down, doesn’t mean the industry isn’t adapting to make the harvest safer. The industry will adopt new refrigeration rules in May that require harvesters to place oysters in refrigerated containers within an hour of harvest. The old rule allows a five-hour window between harvest and refrigeration. The change means many fishermen must now have refrigerated containers on their vessels.

In addition, the oyster industry is still battling to recover from Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Gustav and Ike. The 2005 storms decimated both the eastern and western coastline oyster beds. Just as the beds were starting to rebound in 2008, Gustav and Ike barreled in, smothering the crop under layers of silt and debris.

Louisiana produces roughly 250 million pounds of in-shell oysters a year—almost a third of the nation’s oysters. The state is the largest oyster producer in the country. The Gulf of Mexico produces almost 500 million pounds of oysters per year.

This year’s yield is lower than average, says Mike Voisin, a member and past chairman of the state’s Oyster Task Force. That’s driven up prices by as much as 25 percent over last year. Oysters are running about $30 per sack; pre-Katrina a sack cost between $16 and $18, he says.

Voisin says the mollusks are fast rebounders because they have two reproduction cycles, in spring and fall. He calls them the “weeds of the sea” because of their resiliency. He expects a full recovery by 2011 provided there are no significant storms this season.

On the plus side, the scarcity hasn’t dimmed demand for the delicacy. And unlike crawfish and shrimp, local oysters don’t face competition from foreign imports. Louisiana Gulf oysters have their own distinct texture and flavor: plump, sweet and salty.

Take it from Sunseri: “It’s tough to compete with a fresh oyster.”