Here’s a little-known fact about my career: I am considered a national expert on a very nasty bacteria that kills about 100 people a year.
What is this bacterium? It’s called “vibrio vulnificus.” How do you get it? By eating raw oysters, primarily from the Gulf of Mexico, but I’ve had cases from people who ate them as far north as Delaware. Location matters because of water temperature. Here’s why…
If you eat this oyster and the bacteria makes it into your blood stream, you have a 50% chance of dying. If you live, you will probably lose both of your legs and maybe your arms.
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 (like the Gulf of Mexico) 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 50% 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. People who take Tums to reduce their stomach acid also open a window to vibrio. And we’ve learned that people with high iron levels are also at risk.
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 that kills 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!)
The State of Texas has gone so far as to pass a recent law declaring that no one can bring a product liability case against the oyster industry, which is big in Galveston.
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 above 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.
Yet, the oyster industry still fights the simple cure for this awful risk. In fact, the State of Texas has gone so far as to pass a recent law declaring that no one can bring a product liability case against the oyster industry, which is big in Galveston.
So, here is the advice I give all my friends, who call and ask, “Where is it safe to eat raw oysters?” I say, “It’s not!”