What to know about eating oysters safely after two reported deaths from shellfish

Two Florida-based people have reportedly died in the last month after consuming raw oysters caught in Louisiana.

On Tuesday, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel reported that an unidentified man in Fort Lauderdale caught a bacterial infection after eating an oyster at the Rustic Inn Crabhouse. The restaurant manager, Gary Oreal, told the outlet that the customer had the “one in a billion [oyster] that was bad” and acknowledged that people can be putting their health at “risk” when eating the shellfish.

The customer, who reportedly worked at the restaurant decades ago, is the second person in Florida to die this month after eating raw oysters. Earlier this month, the Pensacola News Journal reported that community leader Rodney Jackson died from a Vibrio infection on 9 August, after consuming an uncooked oyster.

Jackson reportedly felt mild symptoms after eating the oysters. However, when he began to experience trouble breathing due to the infection, he was admitted to Ascension Sacred Heart’s Intensive Care Unit in Pensacola, where he was diagnosed with and passed away from the bacterial infection.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), eating raw oysters and any undercooked fish can put you at risk of infection with Vibrio, a type of bacteria that “naturally inhabit[s] [in] coastal waters where oysters live”.

Eating raw oysters can cause Vibrio vulnificus, a condition that can lead to severe illness like “bloodstream infections and severe blistering skin lesions”. The agency also notes that Vibrio vulnificus infections can not only “require intensive care or limb amputations,” but “15 to 30 per cent” of them can result in death. According to the CDC, Vibrio infections can be mild, however, the bacteria can be fatal for those who have liver disease or weakened immune systems.

The CDC estimates that approximately “80,000 people get vibriosis - and 100 people die from it - in the United States every year”. Although most illnesses occur during the warmer months, such as May through October, the CDC notes that you can still get sick from eating raw oysters during any season.

However, according to the agency, it is unfortunately “impossible” to tell if an oyster is bad just by “looking at it,” as it can “contain harmful bacteria [that] doesn’t look, smell, or even taste different from any other oyster”.

With that in mind, there are multiple ways to keep yourself safe from getting an infection due to consuming oysters. For example, when touching raw fish, you should always cover up any recent wounds, including those from a piercing, tattoo, or surgery.

“Cover any wounds if they could touch raw seafood or raw seafood juices, or if you might come into contact with brackish or salt water,” the CDC writes.

Along with not eating fish that is undercooked, the CDC recommends keeping your cooked and uncooked seafood separated in order to avoid cross contamination.

When cooking shellfish in the shell, you should either boil it “until the shells open and continue boiling another three to five minutes” or add it to a steamer “when water is already steaming and cook for four to nine minutes”.

The CDC also notes that you should “only eat shellfish that open during cooking” and “throw out any shellfish that do not open fully after cooking”. If you notice any shellfish with open shells before cooking, those should be discarded as well.

For shucked oysters, some safe cooking tips include boiling them “for at least three minutes,” frying them with oil “for at least three minutes at 375 F”, and baking “at 450 F for 10 minutes”.

According to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), “nothing but prolonged exposure to heat at a high enough temperature will kill bacteria” in shellfish that is contaminated.

The FDA also notes that the belief that consuming just a few contaminated oysters will not hurt you is not true, as there has been a reported fatality from eating just three oysters. “The seriousness of any case depends on many factors, including how much bacteria is ingested and the person’s underlying health conditions,” the agency states.