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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Raw Oysters Q&A

Air Date: Week of

Deadly bacteria in raw oysters kill dozens of Americans each year and sicken hundreds more. Laura speaks with Darren Mitchell, a staff attorney for the Center for Science in the Public Interest. His group is leading an effort to tighten the government's regulations on raw shellfish.


KNOY: Mercury in fish isn't the only health worry when it comes to seafood. Deadly bacteria in raw oysters kill dozens of Americans each year and make hundreds more ill. And the Federal Food and Drug Administration isn't doing enough to protect consumers. That's the view of Darren Mitchell, a staff attorney for the Center for Science and the Public Interest. The group wants the government to tighten up regulations on raw shellfish because the seafood is vulnerable to infection.

MITCHELL: The bacteria are found in the water in which the oysters live. And as the oysters filter water to feed themselves, the bacteria become concentrated in their digestive system. Once harvested, they can sit on the boat decks for up to 10 hours in the very warm, warm temperatures, especially in the Gulf Coast where temperatures can reach, as you know, in the upper 90s, and it's often quite humid. These are perfect conditions for bacteria to multiply to very high levels.

KNOY: What oysters do I need to worry especially about, Darren?

MITCHELL: Well, the problem with the deadly bacterium is really a Gulf Coast problem.

KNOY: How about the Northeast or the Pacific Northwest?

MITCHELL: Well, the Northeast or the Pacific Northwest are a problem for a different reason, and it's not as severe a problem. There is a second bacterium, which isn't as deadly as the one that's found on the Gulf Coast but does cause major outbreaks of food-borne illness.

KNOY: Has oyster contamination increased in recent years?

MITCHELL: There does appear to be an increase. But we can't be sure whether that's due to increased reporting of those illnesses or whether it's a real effect. Part of the problem may be that waters from which oysters are harvested have been getting warmer and warmer, due to El Nino, global warming effects. And these bacteria that cause the illnesses really thrive in warm water conditions.

KNOY: So what do you think should be done about it, to make oysters safer?

MITCHELL: Well, my organization, Center for Science in the Public Interest, has petitioned FDA to create a standard under which the processors of oysters from the Gulf Coast will have to eliminate the bacteria from the oysters.

KNOY: How do they do that?

MITCHELL: Well, there are several methods that are under development and have been commercialized. The one that's gone furthest in commercialization is what's called a mild heat pasteurization process. Essentially, what happens to the oysters is they're heated for a short period of time and then cooled down. Other potential methods are irradiation, and in fact there's a petition before the FDA for approval of irradiation for raw shellfish.

KNOY: You know, many people are concerned about irradiation. How viable an alternative is that?

MITCHELL: Well, we think, although our organization also is concerned about irradiation and we don't see it as a panacea for the bacteria that cause food- borne illness, this may be one of those instances where irradiation makes sense.

KNOY: There's an old piece of wisdom, Darren, that I'm sure you've heard: Only eat raw oysters in months with Rs in their names, meaning September, October, November, December. What's behind that saying?

MITCHELL: Well, there's actually no more wisdom in that saying if there ever was. What's behind it is the fact that months with Rs in them tend to be cooler. And as we discussed earlier, the bacteria that infect raw shellfish and get people sick tend to enjoy the warmer water and grow to greater levels during the warmer months. Unfortunately, with global warming and other effects, even the R months now are months in which oysters contain high levels of the deadly bacteria.

KNOY: Do you eat raw oysters?

MITCHELL: I really think the question is whether people who are at high risk should eat raw oysters.

KNOY: Who's on that list of people who should not be eating raw shellfish?

MITCHELL: Well, the people who are at high risk for developing food-borne illness from raw oysters include those with liver disease, cirrhosis, diabetes, cancer, hepatitis, AIDS. Those people, CSPI, my organization, FDA, and others are emphatic in saying those people should not eat raw oysters.

KNOY: Darren Mitchell is staff attorney for the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Darren, thanks a lot for talking with us.

MITCHELL: Thank you very much.



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