Deaths, Illnesses from Contaminated Oysters Continue

CSPI Urges Processing for Raw, Gulf Coast Oysters


Despite a risk management plan adopted in 2001, deaths and illnesses caused by raw oysters contaminated with the dangerous Vibrio vulnificus bacteria have remained relatively constant. The main reason that deaths aren't increasing is because in 2003, one state, California, reduced its Vibrio deaths to zero by banning the sale of the riskiest unprocessed Gulf Coast oysters, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). CSPI today told the Interstate Shellfish Sanitation Conference (ISSC), the quasi-public organization that regulates shellfish safety, that it should reduce deaths and illnesses by requiring treatment of oysters harvested from the Gulf of Mexico harvested during warmer months. Much of the industry has resisted employing technologies that can kill Vibrio without affecting taste, such as cold pasteurization and hydrostatic pressure.

The ISSC risk management plan called for a 40 percent reduction in Vibrio illnesses for 2005 and 2006, and a 60 percent reduction for 2007 and 2008. To measure its progress, the ISSC intends to look at data from what it calls the "core states" of Florida, Texas, California, and Louisiana. CSPI says that it is more likely that the California ban, rather than anything the ISSC is doing, will make those targets achievable. CSPI said the ISSC could better gauge the effectiveness of its plan by excluding California and looking at other states, preferably from the Gulf region.

"No matter how much cocktail sauce the industry dumps on the data, in 2004 20 people died unnecessary and painful deaths after eating contaminated oysters," said CSPI food safety director Caroline Smith DeWaal.

Virtually all oysters carry the bacteria, which are 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 vulnificus will die from it, making it one of the deadliest types of food poisoning.

"The shellfish industry representatives that dominate the ISSC are more concerned with avoiding the inconvenience and expense of regulation than with protecting the public's health," said CSPI staff attorney Amy McDonnell. "This is an industry that needs to be improved by federal regulation, not protected by an interstate cheering section."

This week the ISSC has been considering, among other things, its risk management strategies for Vibrio vulnificus at a meeting in Point Clear, Alabama.

CSPI has urged public health authorities to advise consumers to avoid eating any raw, untreated oysters that are harvested from Gulf states during April through October. Restaurateurs and retailers who want to serve untreated oysters should seek out those from the colder waters of New England or the Pacific Northwest, according to CSPI.

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Contact Jeff Cronin (jcronin[at] or Ariana Stone (astone[at]