Governors Urged to Block Sale of Untreated Gulf Coast Oysters

Deadly Vibrio Bacteria Common in Summer Months


WASHINGTON—The nation's governors are being called upon to ban the sale of untreated oysters from the Gulf Coast since they are often contaminated with the deadly Vibrio vulnificus bacteria. For people with liver or kidney disease, AIDS, cancer, diabetes or other conditions that can compromise the immune system, Vibrio vulnificus kills half the people it infects. It has been causing about 15 deaths a year for many years.

In 2003, California banned the sale of untreated Gulf Coast oysters harvested in summer months and saw the number of vibrio-related deaths plummet from about 6 per year to zero in the five years since. Many safety-conscious retailers, such as Legal Sea Foods and Costco, only sell Gulf Coast oysters that have been processed with cold pasteurization, hydrostatic pressure, or another technology that can kill Vibrio vulnificus without affecting taste. Those and similar processes cost merely pennies per oyster.

"Letting untreated Gulf Coast oysters reach consumers this summer will needlessly sentence several of them to death," said CSPI staff attorney Sarah Klein. "Unfortunately the Food and Drug Administration has abdicated its responsibility to ensure shellfish safety and instead lets the industry police itself with minimal oversight. That’s proven to be a deadly mistake."

For the past eight years the FDA has relied on the Interstate Shellfish Sanitation Conference to monitor food safety in shellfish. That group includes representatives of the FDA and other government agencies, but also includes representatives of the shellfish industry. It does not require that processors kill Vibrio vulnificus during the dangerous summer months. Under the ISSC framework, more than 125 people have died agonizing deaths from contaminated oysters and another 125 people suffered serious illnesses. Despite the failure of the ISSC to control Vibrio, FDA is poised to grant a three-year extension while the industry tries other techniques—such as changing refrigeration temperatures—rather than making effective changes.

"The Gulf Coast oyster industry has privately acknowledged that it has the capacity to perform post-harvest processing on 100 percent of their oysters, but refuse to do so until demand for treated product is clear," wrote Klein to 49 governors and the mayor of the District of Columbia. "We urge you to require that only safe oysters be sold in your communities, an approach that will reduce medical costs and save lives."

CSPI says untreated oysters harvested from Gulf Coast waters from April to October should be subject to state bans and, meanwhile, consumers should avoid consuming such oysters.

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