Gulf Coast shellfish responsible for needless deaths each year

Industry lobbyists and Gulf Coast politicians are trying to torpedo a California ban on raw, unprocessed oysters harvested from the Gulf of Mexico during warm summer months. California health officials imposed the ban in April because those oysters are often contaminated with Vibrio vulnificus, a dangerous pathogen responsible for dozens of illnesses and deaths each year. Now, food-watchdog groups led by the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) are calling on California Governor Gray Davis to resist pressure to lift the ban from the Gulf Coast shellfish industry and its political allies.

“The Gulf’s shellfish lobbyists and their political allies want to deep-six California's ban on untreated Gulf Coast oysters because they are putting their industry’s profits before the health of consumers,” said CSPI’s food safety director Caroline Smith DeWaal. “California health officials have taken this important action to protect people from needless deaths and illnesses this summer.”

Vibrio-laden oysters have killed 47 Californians since 1989. Vibrio is particularly deadly for people who have liver disease, diabetes, AIDS, or other immune deficiencies. Half of the victims who develop a blood infection from Vibrio will die from it, making it one of the deadliest types of food poisoning.

CSPI has long called on the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to require Gulf Coast shellfish producers to process shellfish to eliminate Vibrio. Even though cool pasteurization and hydrostatic pressure can kill the bacteria without affecting taste, the industry has resisted using those technologies.

The California Department of Public Health is scheduled to hold a public hearing on the Gulf-Coast-shellfish ban on Wednesday in Sacramento.