Consumers put faith in the government to assure the safety of the food supply, but this
report will document how the government has betrayed that trust by allowing a well-known
food hazard to sicken and kill consumers year after year.
Virtually all shellfish harvested from the Gulf of Mexico in the warmer months carry Vibrio
vulnificus bacteria.(1) Public-health
officials estimate that Vibrio vulnificus in shellfish causes around 50-60
serious illnesses each year.(2) Half of the people
who develop a blood infection from this hazard die from it,(3)
making this one of the deadliest types of food poisoning.(4) Those who are most at risk of developing a Vibrio
vulnificus blood infection after eating tainted shellfish include the 12 million to
30 million Americans(5) who have an underlying
health condition, such as liver disease, AIDS, or diabetes.(6)
Nearly all of the deaths from Vibrio vulnificus-contaminated raw shellfish have
involved oysters harvested from Gulf Coast waters.(7)
Public-health officials and the shellfish industry have known about this hazard for
over a decade, but have not implemented any effective measures to prevent it.(8) That is because the Food and Drug Administrations
(FDA) feeble food- safety program has given away much of its authority to control
shellfish(9) to a group called the Interstate
Shellfish Sanitation Conference (ISSC).
The ISSC is a coalition of shellfish-producing states and industry representatives that
set state standards for the shellfish industry. The Conference, which was designed to
facilitate the interstate sale of raw shellfish, such as oysters, clams, and mussels, lets
the shellfish industry play a leading role in setting the policies governing its industry,
while excluding consumers and their representatives from meaningful participation in the
process. The FDA has allowed the Conference to assume responsibility for setting standards
governing hazards, such as Vibrio vulnificus, Vibrio parahaemolyticus,
and Norwalk virus, in shellfish products. Today, the same Gulf Coast shellfish
industry that has been linked to nearly 150 deaths and hundreds of illnesses over the past
12 years(10) uses the ISSC to prevent
urgently-needed public-health protections. This report documents the history of the FDAs
and ISSCs failure to adequately address the public-health hazard posed by Vibrio
vulnificus in raw shellfish.
The story of Vibrio vulnificus is the story of
the fox guarding the henhouse. Quite simply, the shellfish industry and its home-state
regulators, which dominate the ISSC, have proven that they cannot police themselves.
Repeatedly the ISSC has put the short-term financial interests of the Gulf Coast shellfish
industry ahead of the well-being of raw-shellfish consumers nationwide. In the end, the
Gulf Coast shellfish industry has suffered economically because its products are widely
viewed as unsafe.(11)
For its part, the FDA has stayed on the sidelines,
seemingly fearful of the $40- million-dollar(12)
Gulf Coast shellfish industry and its powerful allies on Capitol Hill. Effective
government action could have prevented many Vibrio vulnificus-related deaths and
illnesses over the past decade and is still needed to prevent countless tragedies in the
years to come.
To protect consumers from the hazards of Vibrio
vulnificus-contaminated raw molluscan shellfish, we recommend the following steps:
- Restaurants, retailers, and shellfish brokers should not
buy Gulf Coast shellfish harvested during the months of April to October(13) for raw consumption unless the shellfish are
treated to kill Vibrio vulnificus.
- The FDA should add safety standards for molluscan shellfish
to its food-safety regulations.
- The ISSC should be limited to setting water-quality
standards for the shellfish industry.
- Consumers who want to eat raw bivalve shellfish should ask
where the shellfish were harvested. Consumers should not eat raw Gulf Coast oysters,
clams, or mussels unless they have been processed to kill the Vibrio vulnificus