FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Those sweet shellfish may be tempting, but eating oysters in Florida has been dangerous this year.
Oysters have sickened people in the Sunshine State with three different types of illnesses, at least one of them deadly.
Federal officials issued a warning last week for raw oysters harvested in Galveston Bay, Texas, and sold in Florida, along with seven other states. The oysters were potentially contaminated with norovirus and sold to restaurants and retailers. About 211 people were infected by the oysters and had diarrhea, vomiting and stomach pain within 12 to 48 hours after eating them.
Publix Supermarkets said it had sold the shell-on oysters in its fresh seafood display case at its Publix and Publix Greenwise locations and warned the public of the recall.
Southport Raw Bar & Restaurant stopped selling oysters from the Gulf last week. “We got notification about the recall so we are no longer using oysters from the Gulf and getting them from Connecticut and Maryland instead,” manager Mike Cudnik said.
The recall of Texas oysters that sickened people comes a few weeks after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced a recall of a brand of frozen raw oysters harvested in an area of South Korea and distributed in 13 states including Florida. The agency said the oysters from South Korea are suspected of causing sapovirus infections, which is acute gastroenteritis causing vomiting and diarrhea.
This summer, oysters from Louisiana sickened Floridians. A Broward County man died after eating a raw oyster from Louisiana at a Fort Lauderdale seafood restaurant. It was the second death in Florida within weeks from Vibrio vulnificus, a bacteria that lives in coastal waters and typically sickens people through the consumption of raw shellfish or by entering an open wound, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The Broward man had eaten oysters during a birthday celebration and two days later developed a fever and abdominal pain. At the hospital, he tested positive for Vibrio vulnificus. After a week of emergency surgeries and a double amputation, he was pronounced dead.
“It still doesn’t feel completely real,” his daughter told the Sun Sentinel. “I don’t know how an oyster could cause all of this.”
A few weeks earlier, a Pensacola man died from a vibrio vulnificus infection from eating a raw oyster he had purchased at a seafood market.
Florida already has set a record in 2022 for illness and deaths from Vibrio vulnificus. The bacteria sickened 90 people in the state and led to at least 16 deaths. In 2021, the bacteria sickened 44 people, 10 of whom died from it
Vibrio bacteria naturally inhabits coastal waters and can concentrate inside shellfish and other seafood that live in these waters. Cooking kills the bacteria, but some illnesses have been reported in undercooked oysters.
The state tracks only the total numbers of infections or deaths from Vibrio vulnificus and does not differentiate whether they occur from shellfish consumption or an open wound.
The Florida Department of Health attributes some of the infections and deaths from Vibrio in 2022 to people wading in flood waters after Hurricane Ian, particularly in Lee County.
“Vibrio vulnificus can cause infection in those who have an open wound that is exposed to seawater containing the bacteria,” said Jae Williams, press secretary for the Florida Department of Health. “All it takes is a nick or scrape to present an opportunity for the bacteria to take root.”
Since Sept. 29, 2022, 36 cases of Vibrio vulnificus in Lee County associated with Hurricane Ian have been reported to the Department of Health, representing about a third of all cases for the year.
Summer traditionally has been a deadly time for eating shellfish in Florida, particularly raw oysters. The months of May through October are when the bacterium typically flourishes. Many have heard the refrain: Never eat oysters in the months without an “R” in them. That would be May, June, July, and August. In fact, California has a ban on raw gulf oysters in the summer months.
However, you can get sick from eating raw or undercooked oysters during any month, and three cases of Vibrio vulnificus already have been reported in Florida in December.
“One of factors is global warming,” said Sarah Sorscher, Deputy Director of Regulatory Affairs with the Center for Science in the Public Interest. “Vibro prefers warm waters so its habitat is expanding.”
Oysters are known as “filter feeders” because they filter the water for their food. “Whatever is in the water is sucked into the oyster and it stays there. It that’s contaminated water, you end up with contaminated oysters,” Sorscher said.
Vibrio vulnificus is often called the flesh-eating disease. If it gets into the bloodstream, it can be life threatening with symptoms like fever, chills, decreased blood pressure (septic shock), and blistering skin lesions. Bloodstream infections are fatal about 50% of the time, according to the CDC.
Anyone can get a Vibrio vulnificus infection, but it can be more severe for people who are immunocompromised or have a weakened immune system.
The CDC estimates about 80,000 people get Vibrio vulnificus — and 100 people die from it — in the United States every year.
Florida law requires that all restaurants, seafood markets and retailers post warnings about the dangers of consuming raw oysters.
“People need to know they are rolling the dice whenever they eat raw shellfish,” Sorscher said.