Group Issues Raw Oyster Warning

July 10, 2001 -- Before you order a dozen oysters on the half-shell, or visit your local fish market, be sure to find out where the shellfish came from.

A consumer advocacy group is warning the public not to eat oysters from the Gulf of Mexico unless they have been cooked or treated to kill the dangerous bacteria that is blamed for 15 to 20 deaths a year.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest says the raw Gulf Coast oysters can make people who eat them sick, and in the worst cases, the illness can be fatal.

The oyster bacteria are typically found in the Gulf during the warm months, because they cannot survive cold water.

The Food and Drug Administration told The Associated Press, however, that the only consumers who need to avoid raw Gulf oysters are people who are especially vulnerable to bacteria, such as diabetics, people with liver disease or those with suppressed immune systems.

But the CSPI said the situation is more serious. There were at least 85 deaths linked to the bacteria, vibrio vulnificus, between 1996 and 2000, including 16 last year, the CSPI said, citing government reports.

Vibrio vulnificus is especially dangerous for people with diabetes, AIDS, gastric and blood disorders, and liver disease. However, many of those who became ill had no diagnosed condition. The bacterium can cause diarrhea in even healthy adults.

The CSPI makes the following recommendations:

Choose oysters harvested from colder waters in the Northern Atlantic or Pacific oceans.

If you eat at a restaurant, ask where the oysters are from. The oysters are tagged with harvest labels tags as they move through the market, so the restaurant should know the origin.

Treated oysters must have their shells banded shut because treating them breaks the seal, so the treated ones have either rubber bands or gold bands with the company name on them.