Raw oysters contaminated with the dangerous Vibrio vulnificus bacteria are still causing deaths and illnesses.
According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), the primary reason these deaths are not actually increasing is that in 2003 California banned the sale of the riskiest unprocessed Gulf Coast oysters. As a result, Vibrio-related deaths were eliminated in that state.
CSPI has told the Interstate Shellfish Sanitation Conference (ISSC), the organization responsible for monitoring shellfish safety, that it should require the treatment of oysters harvested from the Gulf of Mexico during warmer months.
Although Vibrio can be killed without impacting taste, the industry has been resistant to utilize the technologies such as cold pasteurization and hydrostatic pressure.
CSPI staff attorney Amy McDonnell said that that the shell-fish industry officials who dominate the ISSC “are more concerned with avoiding the inconvenience and expense of regulation than with protecting the public’s health. This is an industry that needs to be improved by federal regulation, not protected by an interstate cheering section."
The ISSC risk management plan called for a 40% reduction in Vibrio illnesses for 2005 and 2006, and a 60% reduction for 2007 and 2008. To evaluate the effectiveness of the plan the ISSC will look at data from Florida, Texas, California, and Louisiana, the states at highest risk.
CSPI says the California ban will probably be more effective than any other measure at preventing further illness. In determining the results of the plan, it will probably be beneficial for the agency to exclude California and focus on the Gulf region.
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 a painful death from it, making it one of the deadliest types of food poisoning. In 2004, 20 people died unnecessarily from eating contaminated oysters.
CSPI has urged public health authorities to advise consumers to avoid eating any raw, untreated oysters that are harvested from Gulf states between April and 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.