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April 21,  2003


(SafetyAlerts) -California Department of Health Services said, in response to deaths and illnesses from eating raw oysters from the Gulf Coast from April through October, emergency restrictions have been imposed on this product in California, Health Director Diana M. Bontá, R.N., Dr.P.H., announced today. The restrictions are the first of their kind in the nation.

Oysters harvested from Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas during the warmer months may be contaminated with the harmful bacteria Vibrio vulnificus, which can lead to severe illness and death. Since 1983, there have been 75 illnesses that have resulted in 48 deaths in California, including six deaths and one illness last year. Individuals with cancer, AIDS and other conditions that weaken or compromise the immune system, especially chronic liver disease associated with alcohol consumption, are at highest risk.

"Each year, Californians become seriously ill and die after consuming raw oysters harvested from the Gulf Coast from April through October," Bontá said. "These emergency regulations were adopted to protect public health. Illnesses and deaths associated with Vibrio vulnificus from raw Gulf Coast oysters are preventable."

The new regulations prohibit shellfish dealers and retailers in California from accepting raw oysters harvested from the Gulf Coast from April through October unless the oysters are treated with a scientifically validated process to reduce Vibrio vulnificus to non-detectable levels and prominently labeled with a statement to that fact.

Since 1991, the California Department of Health Services (CDHS) has required restaurants, markets and other retailers that sell Gulf Coast oysters to prominently display a warning about the risk of eating these oysters. Current regulations prohibit retailers from receiving raw oysters if their origin is not clearly identified and require the retailer to retain oyster identification tags for 90 days. State regulations also require all dealers and retailers to maintain proper records, which allow for the rapid identification of shellfish sources linked to illness.

In 1997, the regulations were amended to provide the warning in Spanish and allowed for an exemption from the warning if the Gulf Coast oysters were treated to reduce the levels of Vibrio vulnificus to non-detectable levels. The new regulations retain the 1991 and 1997 provisions.

In July 2001, CDHS concurred with a decision by the Interstate Shellfish Sanitation Conference to continue educational efforts directed at high-risk individuals. Despite these efforts, California experienced 16 illnesses that resulted in 10 deaths from 2001 through 2002. The conference, a cooperative arrangement between the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, state regulators and the shellfish industry, addresses issues regarding the shellfish industry.

Vibrio vulnificus naturally inhabits estuaries and marine environments and is not associated with environmental pollution. The bacteria does not alter the appearance, taste or odor of oysters.

In healthy individuals, symptoms of Vibrio vulnificus infections include fever, chills and sometimes abdominal pain, generally within 24 hours of eating contaminated shellfish. In at-risk individuals, death can occur within two to three days. More than 50 percent of those who become ill die. Those who survive are often permanently disabled; amputations are sometimes necessary.

CDHS warns consumers that all foods of animal origin pose some risk when eaten raw or undercooked. To reduce the risk of illness, high-risk individuals are advised to cook all foods of animal origins such as oysters, meats, poultry, seafood or eggs.

Consumers with questions about the source of oysters displayed for sale should ask the retailer or oyster supplier.

These emergency regulations take effect immediately. However, CDHS is working with local health departments to phase in implementation of the regulations during the next three weeks. The regulations may be revised following the public comment process. A public hearing on the emergency regulations is scheduled on June 11 in Sacramento. The public comment period will close at 5 p.m. June 13.


Source: CDHS

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