Oyster Processors Reporting Losses This Holiday Season

Oyster sales have plummeted since November following the deaths of three men who ate contaminated oysters. At a time when oyster sales should skyrocket, many oyster processors are reporting 50 percent losses.

Among those feeling the biggest pinch are the shuckers who are left scrounging for work. It's a “hard knock life” at one oyster house with stalls half empty and oysters galore; holiday sales have the shuckers feeling Scrooge-like.

Lynn Martina has bad news for her employees this year. Sales are down 50 to 75 percent, leaving her little choice but to cut back hours and salaries.

The news gets worse when you look at her staff. At Lynn's Quality Oysters 90 percent of employees are related. Lynn says it's heartbreaking to have to put her own family out of business, family like her own aunt and uncle who've been shucking since childhood.

It’s a lifestyle that's had its share of rough waters, but this year's raw oyster scare is topping the charts. Consumers are shying away from the mollusks, fearful they'll become deathly ill.

Lynn says, “If you have chronic illness they will make you sick. Cook them, that's all you got to do is cook them.”

Even health officials say more deaths occur each year by folks swimming in contaminated waters than consuming raw oysters.

For Lynn, her only source of hope is good publicity and getting the facts straight. The facts are there were three men who died from eating raw oysters this year, but all three had pre-existing health problems such as liver problems, diabetes, or were undergoing chemotherapy.

The deadly bacterium these men consumed is called Vibrio Vulnificus and it's a naturally occurring bacterium in the Gulf of Mexico. If you're swimming and have a cut that it enters, you too can become sick, but that is only if you have a compromised immune system.

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What Is Vibrio Vulnificus?

Vibrio vulnificus is a bacterium in the same family as those that cause cholera. It normally lives in warm seawater and is part of a group of vibrios that are called "halophilic" because they require salt.

What Type of Illness Does V. Vulnificus Cause?

  • V. vulnificus can cause disease in those who eat contaminated seafood or have an open wound that is exposed to seawater.
  • Among healthy people, ingestion of V. vulnificus can cause vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal pain.
  • In immunocompromised persons, particularly those with chronic liver disease, V. vulnificus can infect the bloodstream, causing a severe and life-threatening illness characterized by fever and chills, decreased blood pressure (septic shock), and blistering skin lesions.
  • V. vulnificus bloodstream infections are fatal about 50% of the time.
  • V. vulnificus can also cause an infection of the skin when open wounds are exposed to warm seawater; these infections may lead to skin breakdown and ulceration.
  • Persons who are immunocompromised are at higher risk for invasion of the organism into the bloodstream and potentially fatal complications.

How Common Is V. Vulnificus Infection?

  • V. vulnificus is a rare cause of disease, but it is also underreported. Between 1988 and 1995, CDC received reports of over 300 V. vulnificus infections from the Gulf Coast states, where the majority of cases occur.
  • There is no national surveillance system for V. vulnificus, but CDC collaborates with the states of Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Texas, and Mississippi to monitor the number of cases of V. vulnificus infection in the Gulf Coast region.

How Do Persons Get Infected/Treated?

  • Persons who are immunocompromised, especially those with chronic liver disease, are at risk for V. vulnificus when they eat raw seafood, particularly oysters.
  • A recent study showed that people with these pre-existing medical conditions were 80 times more likely to develop V. vulnificus bloodstream infections than were healthy people.
  • The bacterium is frequently isolated from oysters and other shellfish in warm coastal waters during the summer months. Since it is naturally found in warm marine waters, people with open wounds can be exposed to V. vulnificus through direct contact with seawater.
  • There is no evidence for person-to-person transmission of V. vulnificus.
  • V. vulnificus infection is treated with antibiotics. Doxycycline or a third-generation cephalosporin (e.g., ceftazidime) is appropriate.
  • V. vulnificus infection is an acute illness, and those who recover should not expect any long-term consequences.

Tips for Preventing V. Vulnificus

1. Do not eat raw oysters or other raw shellfish.
2. Cook shellfish (oysters, clams, mussels) thoroughly:
3. For shellfish in the shell, either a) boil until the shells open and continue boiling for 5 more minutes, or b) steam until the shells open and then continue cooking for 9 more minutes. Do not eat those shellfish that do not open during cooking. Boil shucked oysters at least 3 minutes, or fry them in oil at least 10 minutes at 375°F.
4. Avoid cross-contamination of cooked seafood and other foods with raw seafood and juices from raw seafood.
5. Eat shellfish promptly after cooking and refrigerate leftovers.
6. Avoid exposure of open wounds or broken skin to warm salt or brackish water, or to raw shellfish harvested from such waters.
7. Wear protective clothing (e.g., gloves) when handling raw shellfish.

Source: http://www.cds.gov (Centers for Disease Control Web site) contributed to this report.