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For Immediate
June 29, 1998


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Consumer Group Seeks End to Deadly Shellfish Harvest from Gulf Coast, Asks Federal Government to Require Safe Raw Oysters

Tainted Oysters Killed at Least Three, Hospitalized Three More This Spring

A national consumer group formally asked the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) today to set a standard requiring the Gulf Coast shellfish industry to eliminate certain dangerous bacteria from its oysters. Inexpensive treatment is available to eradicate harmful bacteria in raw shellfish that have killed at least 89 people since 1989. The bacteria, which occur naturally in warm Gulf Coast waters, are particularly dangerous for the one in nine Americans with certain medical conditions and can cause those people horrific medical problems and death.

"Year after year, the FDA has sat by while numerous American consumers have died painful deaths or suffered amputations and crippling illnesses after eating raw shellfish," said Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a nonprofit food policy group. "With new technology available that can make raw oysters free of dangerous bacteria, it’s time for FDA to require that oysters be made as safe as they can be. If the Gulf Coast shellfish companies keep selling the same old untreated oysters, they’re shameless."

CSPI’s petition asks FDA to require that shellfish sold for raw consumption be free of the bacteria, called Vibrio vulnificus. The requirement would apply to all shellfish harvested from waters linked to previous illnesses from Vibrio vulnificus. Virtually all of the 177 reported cases since 1989 have been linked to the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico or Florida’s Atlantic coast.

"We’re asking the federal government to declare that untreated raw oysters from known danger areas are unsafe to eat unless they are free of Vibrio vulnificus," said Elizabeth Dahl, staff attorney in CSPI’s food safety program. "It makes public health sense and it will save lives."

Already this year, contaminated raw Gulf Coast oysters have killed three people and hospitalized three others. Charles Mann, 59, of Gulfport, Miss., died three days after an Easter Sunday meal that included 30 raw Gulf Coast oysters. A 45-year-old California man had his leg amputated due to an infection caused by tainted oysters that he ate on May 13. The bacteria is hazardous to people with liver problems, diabetes, and cancer, among other medical problems.

At least one inexpensive treatment process to eliminate the bacteria is available, a mild heat pasteurization technology offered by AmeriPure Oyster Companies of Empire, La. The company’s patented treatment eliminates Vibrio vulnificus bacteria for about 8 cents per oyster. The company has said it will license the technology to anyone, including state governments. Other technologies, including a high-pressure treatment, are currently being developed.

CSPI, a nonprofit health-advocacy organization, was founded in 1971. CSPI is supported largely by the one million subscribers to its Nutrition Action Healthletter. The organization is well known for obtaining nutrition labeling on all packaged foods and for its nutritional studies of restaurant foods.

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