Crystal Seas Seafood in Pass Christian is processing a small portion of their oysters with irradiation to eliminate health risks posed by the naturally occurring Vibrio bacteria in Gulf waters that is highly concentrated during summer months.
The resulting new product, dubbed the Crystal Clear Oyster, is processed live and some still in the shell at the $5 million food irradiation facility at Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport. Crystal Seas is a partner in the Gateway America facility which has been operating since last spring.
“The portion we are doing as Crystal Clear is still a small portion of our business, about 10 percent,” said Crystal Seas Seafood manager Jennifer Jenkins, whose father, Joe Jenkins, owns the company. “It takes a while to develop new business.”
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has strict seafood regulations which are regularly tightened and, Jenkins said, “There is a need in the industry for more Vibrio free and reduced products.”
The irradiation process was reviewed by the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources to make sure that all federal and state rules and regulations were met and to ensure that the product is safe for consumers, said DMR’s Joe Jewell.
He said there is an emerging market for oysters treated to reduce the Vibrio bacteria to undetectable levels.
The advantage to using the irradiation process, he said, “is the oyster is left alive and the consumer can enjoy a safe oyster product.”
The harvested oysters are washed and put into containers or sacks at Crystal Seas and trucked over to the airport facility. The oysters are placed on carts which are sealed up, dipped into a pool of water and irradiated. They are returned to the Pass Christian processor for distribution or are picked up by an outside source to be distributed.
The irradiation adds about 20 percent to the cost of processing the oysters.
Crystal Seas advertises its irradiated oysters as reef-fresh and tested to ensure quality. The process eliminates Vibrio to non-detectable levels and the oysters stay cold “from the reef to the table.” The Crystal Seas Oysters’ irradiation system also prolongs shelf life.
“This product is going to sell more in the summer than in the winter,” Jenkins said. “The Vibrio levels are higher in the summer and the regulations for oyster fishing becomes more strict. The product sells all year long but more popular as a summer product.”
While there is some resistance to the irradiated oysters, some customers remain faithful to the Crystal Clear product. “We have some consistent restaurants that use them every week.” But they haven’t been an easy sell, which Jenkins said they expected. “We weren’t expecting to get off the ground easily,” she said.
Jenkins said oysters make up “99 percent of our business,” with shrimp making up the remaining 1 percent. It processes and sells about 10, 000 sacks of oysters a year to customers all over the country and export to China and other countries. Besides traditional processing, which is basically shucking and packaging the raw oysters, Crystal Seas also freezes oysters on the half shell.
The FDA is responsible for regulating the sources of radiation that are used to irradiate food, and it approves a source of radiation for use on foods only after it has determined that irradiating the food is safe, it’s website said.
According to the FDA, “Food irradiation (the application of ionizing radiation to food) is a technology that improves the safety and extends the shelf life of foods by reducing or eliminating microorganisms and insects. Like pasteurizing milk and canning fruits and vegetables, irradiation can make food safer for the consumer.”
Jenkins said she expects the company to irradiate more oysters in the future as the FDA continues to tighten food safety rules and consumers get used to the idea. “People are going to have to get used to it,” she said.
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