During a brief vacation in San Francisco three years ago to celebrate a successful business deal, William Kilpatrick ordered a dozen raw oysters from room service at the Holiday Inn Fisherman's Wharf.
Within hours of eating the shellfish, the Redding, Calif., man began suffering the classic symptoms of food poisoning: chills, diarrhea, nausea and vomiting.
Unlike the victims of most food-borne illnesses, however, Kilpatrick did not improve after a few days. Instead, his disease worsened. What was originally a gastrointestinal infection spread to his blood stream and progressed into skin and muscle lesions so severe they resembled burns.
Kilpatrick's condition continued to deteriorate with the onset of osteomyelitis, a bone-marrow infection, in his right upper arm. Tests then indicated the presence of Vibrio cholera, a potentially fatal bacterium, in his bone marrow. V. cholera is one of several vibrio strains known to infect oysters, particularly those from warm waters such as the Gulf of Mexico.
Today, 38 and unemployed, Kilpatrick has limited use of his right arm and walks with the aid of a cane. Nor does he have the strength to lift his 17-month-old son. He says he is "devastated" by the infection.
Through his attorney--Genese Dopson Smith--Kilpatrick has filed a product liability, breach of warranty and negligence suit against the hotel and eight other firms believed to have harvested, shipped or sold the suspect Gulf Coast oysters.
The increasing presence of Vibrio species, such as V. cholera and V. vulnificus, in Gulf Coast oysters forced state officials to act. California, under emergency regulations, has ordered all retail outlets selling Gulf of Mexico oysters to post warning signs by next Friday stating that the shellfish--if consumed raw--may cause "severe illness and even death" in certain high-risk groups.
Individuals considered susceptible to Vibrio infections included those with compromised immune systems, liver disease and chronic alcohol abusers.
The warnings, whether carried at supermarket seafood counters or on restaurant menus, will be the first associated with a food product in California.
V. vulnificus is a naturally occurring bacterium generally associated with warm-water regions, and the warnings apply to any of the bivalves harvested off the coasts of Texas, Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama or Florida. As many as 100% of the oysters harvested from these areas in the summer months have tested positive for V. vulnificus, according to recent research. Improper handling and storage can further elevate the bacterium's levels.
"There are no known process controls to prevent V. vulnificus from being incorporated into the oyster meat before harvest or that can prevent its growth after harvest," said Stuart Richardson, food and drug branch chief with the Health Services Department in Sacramento.
An estimated five million pounds of oysters are sold each year in California. Industry and state officials differ as to how many of the mollusks are of Gulf origin, and the figures vary widely, from 40% to as much as 95%.
Representatives of the Louisiana seafood industry feel that their oysters are being unfairly targeted.
"If California's concern is public health then they need to spread this warning to all oyster sources and not just single out the Gulf Coast because 40% of these V. vulnificus case are from unknown (oyster) sources," said Karl Turner, executive director of the Louisiana Seafood Promotion Board in New Orleans.
Right now there is little evidence linking oysters from the Pacific Ocean with V. vulnificus. However, California officials left open the possibility of including other regions under the emergency regulation should future research warrant it.
The warning requirement comes on the heels of the "Seafood Safety" study from the National Academy of Sciences, which listed consumption of raw oysters as among the "greatest health risks associated with seafood."