Emergency order praised by CSPI

California public health officials today banned the sale of raw oysters harvested in warm months from the Gulf of Mexico because of concerns about bacterial contamination. That move won praise today from the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), which for years has called on the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to require such oysters to be processed to eradicate the dangerous Vibrio vulnificus bacteria.

"California officials have done what the FDA should have done long ago," said CSPI food safety director Caroline Smith DeWaal. "Because the FDA has abdicated its responsibility, each year dozens of consumers are hospitalized and half of those die from eating raw Gulf Coast oysters."

Today’s emergency order--which goes into effect immediately--prevents California retailers, distributors, and wholesalers from accepting raw Gulf Coast oysters harvested during April through October unless the oysters have been processed to eliminate Vibrio. Enforcement of the order will be phased in between today and May 1.

Virtually all such shellfish carry the bacteria, which is particularly deadly for Americans who have an underlying health condition such as liver disease, diabetes, AIDS, or other immune deficiencies. Half of the victims who develop a blood infection from V. vulnificus will die from it, making it one of the deadliest types of food poisoning.

"The FDA should not continue to stand on the sidelines while states act on their own," said CSPI senior food safety attorney Charlotte Christin, who coordinates CSPI’s Serving Safer Shellfish (SSS) campaign. "Until the FDA acts, retailers around the country should not serve or sell unprocessed Gulf Coast shellfish meant to be eaten raw."

Restaurants, retailers, and wholesalers who are SSS members have pledged to serve or sell their customers only raw shellfish harvested from cold waters or processed Gulf Coast shellfish.

Today's action is the second in recent months in which California officials have adopted seafood safety stances tougher than the federal government's. California Attorney General Bill Lockyer has recently filed lawsuits to require chain restaurants and retailers to warn consumers about seafood known to have high levels of mercury.

Note: Restaurants, retailers, and wholesalers who want to join the Serving Safer Shellfish campaign should contact Charlotte Christin at CSPI, 202-777-8319.