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Is It Safe to Eat Oysters?

September 12, 2023
vibrio vulnificus bacteria

If you are a person who loves oysters, then you probably LOVE oysters. There is an entire culture around eating oysters, especially around the Gulf of Mexico and on the east coast, where people gather friends and serve their oysters grilled, fried, baked, and raw.

But due to a growing concern with a bacterium known as Vibrio vulnificus, oyster lovers should be on alert when it comes to raw oysters. It is simply no longer safe to eat oysters raw, especially if you don’t know which waters they came from, and how they were harvested and stored.

Why is this? Global warming has led to warmer oceans, which enable Vibrio to grow and bloom inside oyster shells. If you don’t cook your oysters, you could be ingesting a bacterium that kills 1 in 5 of the people it infects.

Those who are lucky enough to live usually have undergone multiple amputations to rid their body of the infection. Vibrio vulnificus is no joke.

What Happens to Someone Who Ingests Vibrio vulnificus?

Scientist holds a petri dish with vibrio vulnificus in it

My first vibrio case came to me through a friend who called and said his buddy was in the hospital, possibly from poisoning he received from an oyster. When I arrived at the hospital, I was utterly shocked at what I found: this poor man was fighting for his life because the bacteria were attacking his internal organs, but it had also attacked both of his legs. Imagine both his legs from the knees down as black as shoe leather because they had already died.

Ultimately, the hospital saved the man’s life, but he lost both legs below the knees. I took his case and we sued everyone who touched the oysters: harvesters, processors, shippers, wholesale sellers, and the restaurant. We were able to settle and secured a large sum for the victim.

After that case, I warned everyone I knew not to eat raw oysters if they were harvested north of Delaware. The oceans north of that point were still chilly enough to keep Vibrio vulnificus from growing and blooming. But as the oceans warm, Vibrio thrives.

I now tell people not to eat raw oysters from anywhere south of Maine. But to be honest, I don’t eat raw oysters at all anymore. It’s just too scary.

Vibrio vulnificus Death

Person in the hospital because of vibrio from eating oysters

I recently settled another case involving a man who tragically died after eating raw oysters. Jackson and his wife, Mary, were on a road trip along the eastern seaboard in 2019. On the way home, Jackson had a craving for oysters and suggested they stop at a high-end restaurant. Mary did not eat the raw oysters.

Within 48 hours, Jackson fell seriously ill and was hospitalized. His condition deteriorated rapidly, and within 72 hours, he succumbed to sepsis. Shockingly, doctors had to amputate both of his legs, and they were contemplating removing one of his arms before his passing.

Jackson had contracted Vibrio vulnificus.

Mary hired me and I uncovered disturbing facts about Jackson’s ordeal. The restaurant had served oysters that were 17 to 28 days past their expiration date. Moreover, during the time the oysters were stored, a hurricane had struck the area, resulting in a power outage.

This caused the oysters to reach temperatures above 42 degrees, creating the perfect environment for Vibrio vulnificus to thrive.

Initially, the restaurant’s legal team hesitated to settle the case, believing they could prevail in court. However, during mediation, I presented a compelling case with the evidence I had amassed. Faced with the prospect of a losing trial, the restaurant eventually agreed to a settlement of $1,700,000.

Why Are Raw Oysters Dangerous?

Raw oysters can kill you

Oysters are filter feeders: they filter water and live off of the plankton and other particles captured in their shells. When the water they’re in is warm and contains Vibrio vulnificus, it gets trapped in the oyster. If you eat this oyster and the bacteria makes it into your blood stream, you have a very high chance of dying. If you live, you will probably lose both of your legs and maybe your arms.

Vibrio causes Septicemia, which means that it attacks your vascular system and internal organs. People with depressed immune systems are particularly vulnerable… those with diabetes, cancer, cirrhosis… but others are susceptible, too.

Here’s the really upsetting part: the oyster industry knows about this problem and fights the very simple remedies to keep people safe. Essentially, there are ways to pasteurize the oysters to kill the bacteria.

This process also kills the oyster (did you know that most raw oysters are still alive when you eat them?) but keeps the oysters raw, for pennies per oyster. But they claim that the process affects the taste. (If you agree, you need to weigh the risk. I will never eat another raw oyster but I think cooked oysters are delicious!)

Can I Eat Cooked Oysters?

Cooked oysters are okay.

Short answer: Yes! I enjoy cooked oysters often at a restaurant near my office. Cooking, baking and frying the oysters kills the bacteria, making the oysters safe to eat and enjoy.

I actually think oysters taste better when they are cooked because the cooking process releases the distinctive umami flavors locked within the mollusk, enhancing their depth and complexity. Add a dash of garlic, herbs, or cheese and the result is delicious.

If you have any questions about eating raw oysters, or about our work as a Vibrio vulnificus law firm, please call or text me today. 303-388-5304




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