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July 9, 2001

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Report: Death on the half Shell


  Gulf of Mexico Shellfish: Death on the Half Shell
Launching the “Serving Safer Shellfish” Campaign

WASHINGTON - Prompted by deaths caused every year by tainted Gulf of Mexico shellfish, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) today launched a campaign to increase shellfish safety. According to “Death on the Half Shell,” a CSPI report issued today, government inaction has led to more than 135 deaths from contaminated oysters since 1989. The campaign urges consumers not to eat and shellfish dealers, retailers, and restaurants not to market raw Gulf Coast oysters unless they have been processed to kill bacteria.

     Government reports show that virtually all shellfish harvested from the Gulf of Mexico in warmer months carry Vibrio vulnificus. Tainted raw shellfish are most likely to cause blood infections in the 12 million to 30 million Americans who have underlying health conditions, such as liver disease, diabetes, cancer, hepatitis, and kidney disease, according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Half the people who develop V. vulnificus blood infections from raw shellfish die, making it one of the deadliest types of food poisoning.

     “Health officials and the shellfish industry have known of this hazard for over a decade, but have done little to prevent it,” said CSPI food-safety attorney Charlotte Christin. “The FDA has given away to the shellfish industry much of its authority to control shellfish safety. This is a classic case of trusting the fox to guard the henhouse. Unfortunately, some in the shellfish industry and state regulators have proven repeatedly that they care more about industry profits than public health. The FDA and Congress have largely sat on the sidelines, while people have died unnecessarily.”

     The Interstate Shellfish Sanitation Conference (ISSC), which is made up mostly of representatives of shellfish-producing states and industry, sets state standards for the shellfish industry. Through the ISSC, the shellfish industry plays a leading role in setting the policies governing the industry, while largely excluding consumers and their representatives.

     At a Washington press conference today, CSPI was joined by Roger Berkowitz, president of Legal Sea Foods, in announcing a new campaign to promote safer shellfish. The “Serving Safer Shellfish” campaign will urge oyster lovers not to eat raw untreated Gulf Coast oysters. It also will urge restaurants, retailers, and seafood wholesalers to market only shellfish that are harvested from cold waters, such as New England or Northwest Pacific coastal waters, or Gulf Coast shellfish that have been processed to kill Vibrio vulnificus.

     Companies that take the Serving Safer Shellfish campaign pledge will display the “Serving Safer Shellfish” logo, inform consumers about the source of the shellfish they serve, support FDA actions to ensure that Gulf Coast oysters are safe, and talk to the local media about how they are protecting their customers’ health.

     “The Serving Safer Shellfish campaign goes straight to the businesses that can control oyster safety — the seafood companies and restaurants. They can play a pivotal role in delivering a safe, quality product while protecting the health and well-being of the consumer,” said Berkowitz. “In the long run, it will have a positive impact on the seafood industry.”

     R. Craig Wilson, Assistant Vice President and Director of Food Safety and Quality Assurance for membership warehouse Costco Wholesale, noted in a statement, “Costco will only sell oysters that have been processed for safety purposes (supported by process validation data) and which is consistent with the standards of the Serving Safer Shellfish campaign.”

     Also at the press conference, Legal Sea Foods served oysters from colder waters, and Flow International and AmeriPure Oyster Company served Northwest and Gulf Coast oysters that had been treated.

     “We applaud those companies that have made the decision to implement any one of the post-harvest intervention technologies currently available to them, and we are committed to working with both the seafood industry and regulatory agencies to find solutions to these food-safety challenges,” said Edmund Y. Ting, Sc.D., Vice President of Research and Development at Flow International. “We believe that educational initiatives such as the one launched today by CSPI can serve the valuable purpose of raising awareness of food-safety technologies such as ours.”