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Down at the Maine Avenue seafood market, a man in a dirty ruffled tuxedo shirt and camouflage pants wants to know if I’d like some oysters on the half shell. I ask him where the shellfish come from, and he says “Virginia” without any hesitation. I have my doubts and ask to see the shipping tag, which details the harvest date and location. He opens the large rusty door to the walk-in cooler behind him, rips the tag off a box, and hands it to me. The oysters were harvested on April 7 from “Area 30566” and shipped here by “LA 1894 SP.”
Perhaps he just made an innocent mistake, but the shucker has confused the oyster processor, who is based in Virginia, with the oyster harvester. His bivalves actually came from beds off the coast of Louisiana, where, during the spring and summer, the warm and salty waters of the Gulf of Mexico provide the ideal growing conditions for Vibrio vulnificus, a bacterium that occurs naturally in coastal waters but is more abundant during the hotter months. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that, from 2001 to 2004, 126 people nationwide died from illnesses related to V. vulnificus; approximately 64 of them croaked from consuming oysters, including a Prince George’s County man who bought bivalves at the Maine Avenue fish market in 2002. Most, if not all, of the people who died had liver disease, diabetes, or some other condition that compromised their immune system.
For food safety and other reasons, oyster eaters long ago developed an axiom that dictates when to avoid the mollusks. Never eat raw oysters, they say, during months without an “R” in them—May through August. When dealing with Gulf oysters, however, some feel the axiom is not restrictive enough. In 2003, California banned the sale of raw oysters harvested from the Gulf between April 1 and Oct. 31, unless the shellfish have been treated post-harvest for bacteria.
And don’t look for Gulf oysters at many of your local raw bars at any time of the year. Jamie Leeds isn’t selling them at Hank’s Oyster Bar. Nor Jeff Black at BlackSalt Fish Market. Nor Bob Kinkead at Kinkead’s. Nor the Clyde’s Restaurant Group at its raw-bar outlets, including the Old Ebbitt Grill. “The Chesapeake Bay—that’s pretty much the most southern point I’ll deal with,” says Kinkead. “I don’t buy anything from the Gulf Coast.”
Selling untreated Gulf oysters along Maine Avenue isn’t a crime, as it is in California. But the rules that regulate the shellfish industry are not entirely determined by public health officials. Shellfish harvesters and processors, through a public–private organization known as the Interstate Shellfish Sanitation Conference (ISSC), help shape those rules, too. In the case of V. vulnificus, the ISSC has opted to deal with the bacteria, which changes neither the appearance nor the odor of the oyster, largely through public education—which down on the waterfront begins and ends with small, D.C. Department of Health–mandated signs over the raw bars warning that “Individuals with certain health conditions such as liver disease, chronic alcohol abuse, diabetes, cancer, stomach, blood or immune disorders may be at higher risk if these foods are consumed raw or undercooked.”
I asked four different shuckers—two each with Jessie Taylor Seafood and Captain White’s Seafood City, the main purveyors along Maine Avenue—where their oysters came from. Their answers: don’t know, Virginia, California, and the Chesapeake Bay. In other words, if you’re trying to lower your risk of bacterial infection at the market, you may not get much help from the folks prying open your oysters, most of which will come from Louisiana this spring and summer. “We’ll need to do more education in that department,” says Sunny White, co-owner of Captain White’s. Adds Chelton Evans, president of Jessie Taylor, “Maybe there should be another sign saying where the oysters are from.”
Each of those four shuckers at the market was selling oysters from Louisiana; the shipping tags all indicated the James E. Headley Oyster Co. in Callao, Va., as the processor. I visited the company’s operation on a spit of land between the Potomac and Rappahannock rivers in eastern Virginia. Supervisor Phillip Headley, younger brother of company founder James, compiles the painstaking paperwork required of certified shucker/packers—and yet, despite all the rules he has to follow, Headley won’t eat raw oysters. “I figure it’s not worth the chance,” he told me during my visit.
Headley described the epic journey that the tuxedo-shirted man’s oysters took before reaching the Maine Avenue market. The shellfish were harvested on April 7 in Gulf waters off Louisiana; a certified shipper trucked them to Headley; Headley cleaned, graded, and packed the shellstock; a different certified shipper purchased the shellstock and trucked it to Jessie Taylor, which was selling the oysters on April 13, six days after harvesting.
Each step along the way, the shellstock was subjected to an ungodly amount of regulation, most designed to ensure that the oysters were kept at the proper temperature to prevent bacteria growth. At no point, however, was the shellstock tested for V. vulnificus—not even a sample before the harvesters started pulling shellfish out of their designated area of the Gulf. Why? Because ISSC policies—which are blessed by the FDA before shellfish-harvesting-and-processing states adopt them into their own regulations—don’t require testing. Or even post-harvest bacterial treatment.
The ISSC has its reasons for not testing oyster beds for V. vulnificus before harvesting. For starters, says Mike Voisin, chair of the Louisiana Oyster Task Force and a former ISSC executive board member, most healthy people will suffer only diarrhea, not death, from eating oysters with V. vulnificus. “You don’t stop selling peanut butter because somebody has an allergy,” Voisin says. “You make them aware [of the risks] through the medical community.” What’s more, says Voisin, no one knows how much of the bacteria constitutes a lethal dose. But the FDA seems to know: On its Web site, the agency lists a V. vulnificus bacterial count at which at-risk consumers presumably could suffer fatal blood poisoning.
While the ISSC is willing to take calculated risks, some in the business of selling oysters are not. Victoria Griffith, director of quality assurance at Clyde’s Restaurant Group, says the company will purchase oysters only after harvesters submit samples to an independent lab, which tests for a number of bacteria, including V. vulnificus. Clyde’s requires the test even though it doesn’t purchase Gulf oysters, a smart move given that Vibrio bacteria have also been found in oysters harvested in Northern waters. “We take serving oysters very seriously,” Griffith says. “If you don’t respect oysters, the ramifications can be serious.”
That may help protect those who can afford the pricey bivalves at Old Ebbitt, but who’s watching out for the folks shopping along Maine Avenue? The D.C. Department of Health threatened to conduct product testing at the market after the Prince George’s County man died. But Peggy Keller, chief of the Bureau of Community Hygiene, says oyster testing is “definitely not” happening—unless someone files a specific complaint. At the same time, she adds, testing could provide a false sense of security if officials pass one shipment of oysters, only to miss a tainted one. “What should be happening is that the [oyster] beds should be tested,” Keller says.
The fact is, the Gulf Coast oyster industry is big business, particularly in Louisiana, which annually produces almost half of the 1.5 billion oysters in the region (according to pre-Katrina numbers). Louisiana harvesters are not going to shut down their beds based on what they feel is a small chance for bacterial infection, even if that means a dozen or so deaths a year. They are placing the burden on the consumer. Consider yourself warned. —Tim Carman
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