Gulf Coast oysters unsafe (but not for the reason you think)

Gulf coast politicians are tripping over themselves to assure consumers that seafood from the Gulf is safe to eat.  And to be sure, some shrimp and finfish may not be contaminated by the petroleum gushing from the Deepwater Horizon spill.  But those statements from officials obscure the real danger presented to some consumers by Gulf Coast oysters—nearly all of which are contaminated with deadly Vibrio vulnificus bacteria during warm summer months, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest.  CSPI is calling on federal and state government officials to remind consumers that the normal risks associated with Gulf oysters are still present.  

“We’ve seen several reassuring statements that seafood from the Gulf on the market is safe,” said David W. Plunkett, a CSPI staff attorney. “While some Gulf oysters may be ‘safe’ from oil contamination, that doesn’t mean they are ‘safe’ to eat,” he explained. At risk populations should not eat raw oysters from the Gulf, Plunkett said.

Vibrio vulnificus is a common bacterium that thrives in warm Gulf waters in the spring and summer and contaminates Gulf oysters. While it may cause mild illnesses in healthy individuals, it can kill people who have diabetes, liver disease, hemochromatosis or compromised immune systems.

Last year, serious Vibrio vulnificus infections from eating raw oysters claimed 26 victims, 10 of whom died, according to the Centers for Disease Control.  In any year, half the people who develop serious symptoms die, and many of those who survive live with the scars from the skin debridement or amputation that may have been necessary to keep them alive.

It is especially shocking to see statements on the Food and Drug Administration’s website that shellfish harvested from areas unaffected by the spill are safe to eat, Plunkett said.  Only last fall, Mike Taylor, Deputy Commissioner for Foods at FDA, called Vibrio vulnificus a significant hazard, saying that “seldom is the evidence on a food safety problem and solution so unambiguous,” and announced plans to require post-harvest processing of Gulf oysters to destroy the bacteria.

FDA eventually backed down from its plans under pressure from Members of Congress who responded to industry posturing over potential job losses.  To date, only California has implemented an effective control plan to protect its consumers, according to CSPI.

“While everyone wants to support people in the Gulf right now, government statements that ignore well-known risks only mean that more could suffer unnecessarily,” Plunkett said.

Kathlyn Stone

Kathlyn Stone is a Twin Cities, Minnesota-based writer who has covered general news, and business, international trade, and health care news and policies for public and professional audiences.