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Industry Conferees to Take Up Summertime Ban of Gulf Oysters

Regulations: Issue is revived after recent deaths. Some sanitation conference delegates say the real problem is that doctors aren't doing enough to warn high-risk persons.

August 22, 1996|DANIEL P. PUZO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Calls to suspend the harvesting of oysters from the Gulf of Mexico during warm weather months increased this week after a report in The Times that four recent Los Angeles-area fatalities were linked to consumption of the shellfish.

Although discussion of a shutdown is not on the agenda of the Interstate Shellfish Sanitation Conference, which regulates shellfish production, such a move will be discussed before delegates in Colorado Springs, Colo., adjourn Friday, said Ken Moore, the conference's executive director. The ISSC has resisted previous calls for a seasonal ban.

Gulf oysters, particularly during April through October, carry a potentially fatal bacterium: Vibrio vulnificus. Some people--especially those with liver disease, diabetes and cancer and those who are heavy users of alcohol--are at acute risk for the infection.

V. vulnificus-contaminated oysters are undetectable by smell, odor or taste. The onset of illness is symptomatized by nausea, abdominal cramps and fever. In severe cases, V. vulnificus leads to major blood infections and a quick death, often within two days.

Since 1991, California has required that a warning sign be placed wherever Gulf oysters are sold, alerting consumers that "eating raw oysters may cause severe illness and even death" in high-risk individuals. The state regulation, however, requires only that the posting be in English and is apparently not reaching some in the Latino community. Of the 16 cases of V. vulnificus since 1993 in Los Angeles County, 15 of the individuals were primarily Spanish speakers.

With the reports of four deaths this summer from the infection in the county, the state's Health Services Department is taking emergency measures this week to require that the warnings also be posted in Spanish. Additionally, the state has increased the number of laboratory analyses of Gulf oyster shipments to determine why California seems to be receiving an unusually large number of contaminated oysters this year.

Among the groups calling for tighter restrictions on the harvest of oysters from Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida is the California Aquaculture Assn., a trade group made up of fish and shellfish farmers.

"We have long been concerned about the importation of Gulf oysters and we question whether the [state's] warning requirement is sufficient to protect public health and safety," said Jeffrey Young, vice president and general counsel of the association. "Louisiana has been more concerned about their seafood business and keeping the dollars flowing from this market, one of their largest. They are more concerned with dollars than public health and safety."

Young, a Santa Barbara attorney, said that, at a minimum, the shellfish conference should adopt a proposal from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration that the group tabled last year. The FDA plan would require that all Gulf oysters harvested between April and October be shucked, packaged in containers and labeled with a warning that they should be fully cooked.

A major Louisiana oyster producer said that the shellfish sanitation conference discusses a suspension of summertime harvesting at every annual meeting but that such a move is unnecessary.

"Our product is safe except for those few persons at risk," said Mike Voisin, vice president of Motivated Seafoods in Houma, La. "We have strongly urged people in high-risk groups to cook our product and avoid any raw protein foods such as raw cookie dough, sushi, steak tartare and eggs."

Voisin, who also co-owns Captain Salty's, a Calif. seafood wholesale company in Garden Grove, said physicians need to do a better job of educating their patients about high-risk foods.

"Let me know what I am at risk from," he said. "The medical community needs to do that and more aggressively so. To my knowledge, all the illnesses linked to V. vulnificus were in patients that had other underlying conditions. Doctors should have told them about the dangers of eating any raw food, that it could terminate your life."

Even without an official ban, some distributors and retailers are shying away from handling the controversial shellfish and their potential legal liabilities.

"In California I don't know of any reputable dealers handling Gulf oysters at this time. Nobody," said J. David Ptak, vice president of Chesapeake Fish Co. in San Diego, one of the state's largest seafood wholesalers. "The state has made it clear that they are nervous about people eating raw oysters from the Gulf, especially among immuno-compromised people. That is the state of California's position and therefore my position."

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