Four people have died this year so far

WASHINGTON—Consumers should avoid raw or lightly steamed shellfish harvested from the Gulf of Mexico during warmer months, unless they have been processed to kill deadly bacteria, according to the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). Already this year, shellfish contaminated with Vibrio vulnificus bacteria have been blamed for six illnesses and four deaths. Officials report that V. vulnificus in Gulf of Mexico shellfish beds reached dangerous levels in April, thanks to unseasonably warm waters. That could portend a particularly deadly summer, says CSPI.

“This is a life-or-death issue for many consumers, because Vibrio vulnificus can cause a fatal blood infection,” said CSPI attorney Charlotte Christin. V. vulnificus-tainted shellfish are particularly dangerous to consumers with underlying health conditions. “Health officials have known about this hazard for more than a decade but—because of industry opposition—have not implemented effective measures to prevent it. The Food and Drug Administration’s inaction, in effect, sentences between 15 and 20 Americans to death each year,” Christin said.

Four years ago CSPI petitioned the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to require treatment of Gulf Coast oysters to make them safe for raw consumption. Although the FDA has published the CSPI petition for comment and has repeatedly said this petition is a top priority, the agency has never acted on it. Meanwhile, the FDA estimates that illnesses caused by V. vulnificus cost the economy more than $120 million annually, an amount that far exceeds the $50-million annual revenues of the Gulf Coast shellfish industry. Despite the well-documented human and economic toll of V. vulnificus, the FDA seems more concerned with placating Gulf Coast legislators and their industry constituents than it is with protecting consumers, CSPI says.

Years of government inaction prompted CSPI to launch its Serving Safer Shellfish (SSS) campaign in July 2001. The SSS campaign is designed to alert consumers and seafood businesses about safer alternatives—raw shellfish harvested from cold waters or Gulf Coast shellfish that have been processed to kill the deadly bacteria. Today more than fifty restaurants, retailers, and wholesalers nationwide have taken the SSS pledge not to market raw, unprocessed Gulf Coast oysters.

“Our SSS members realize that by serving and selling only safe shellfish, they are protecting their customers and enhancing their business reputations,” Christin said.

“I only want to serve the freshest and safest shellfish to my patrons,” said famed chef and restaurateur Nora Pouillon, whose two Washington, D.C., restaurants, Restaurant Nora and Asia Nora, participate in the campaign. Other SSS members include Boston-based Legal Sea Foods, New York City’s Pearl Oyster Bar, San Francisco’s Waterfront Restaurant, and Panama City Beach’s Montego Bay Seafood restaurants.