Raw oysters, so good with hot sauce, increasingly can carry something even more unsettling to the stomach: A bacteria linked to vomiting, diarrhea and pain.
Infections with vibrio, a saltwater-based bacteria that can pool in shellfish, jumped 75 percent last year from 2006-2008, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta said in a report today. That’s the highest level seen since tracking began in 1996, the CDC said. There were 242 infections logged by CDC’s FoodNet at 10 sites in the U.S. covering about 15 percent of the population.
Vibrio accounts for about 100 deaths and 80,000 illnesses in the U.S. a year. The annual report by the CDC, which reviewed a number of foodborne illnesses, also found that campylobacter incidents linked to chicken and dairy rose 13 percent in the same period while salmonella dropped 9 percent in 2013 compared to the three previous years.
“We have seen the West Coast version of vibrios migrate to the East and we don’t know when it will strike again,” said David Plunkett, senior staff attorney in the Center for Science in the Public Interest’s food-safety program. “It’s going to be dangerous for the industry, dangerous for consumers. The sad part is that we know how to control it.”
The CDC and 13 states have been monitoring an increase in vibriosis, rod-shaped bacteria, since May 2013, the agency said. The infections are linked to raw oysters and clams harvested along the Atlantic Coast, and the strain of bacteria now seen is ’’rarely associated’’ with shellfish from the region before 2012, the CDC said.
Oyster harvest areas in Massachusetts and Connecticut have recalled oysters, while some Virginia and Massachusetts waters have been closed to harvesting, according to the agency. Vibrio infections “can be prevented by postharvest treatment of oysters with heat, freezing, or high pressure, by thorough cooking, or by not eating oysters during warmer months,” the CDC said in its report.
Pasteurization, which can include flash freezing, high pressure and irradiation, isn’t a requirement for the oyster industry. The Food and Drug Administration proposed a requirement in 2009 through the Interstate Shellfish Sanitation Conference, which creates standards for the industry, that was shot down by members of Congress, Plunkett said in a telephone interview.
Groups that represent the oyster industry, such as the East Coast Shellfish Growers Association, complained pasteurization alters the flavor and texture of oysters and would increase costs.
The rate of vibrio illnesses, though, remains much lower than foodborne infections such as salmonella and campylobacter. In 2011 and 2012, salmonella and listeria were blamed for contaminating cantaloupe that sickened 400 people and caused at least 36 deaths. Salmonella is responsible for an estimated 1.2 million illnesses in the U.S. each year, the CDC said.
“To keep salmonella on the decline, we need to work with the food industry and our federal, state and local partners to implement strong actions to control known risks and to detect foodborne germs lurking in unsuspected foods,” Robert Tauxe, deputy director of the CDC division that handles foodborne illness, said in an e-mailed statement.
Campylobacter infections are linked to an estimated 1.3 million illnesses annually in the U.S., while less deaths are blamed on the disease at 76 compared to salmonella at 450 a year, the CDC said.
The agency’s report draws data from FoodNet, a network of CDC experts, 10 state health departments, the U.S. Agriculture Department’s Food Safety and Inspection Service and the Food and Drug Administration.
The Department of Agriculture is working on new standards for cut-up poultry and plans to modernize poultry inspection. The FDA last year proposed rules to implement the 2011 Food Safety Modernization Act that require companies to develop a formal plan for preventing the causes of food illness and force produce farms with a high risk of contamination to develop new hygiene, soil and temperature controls.