The safety of eating oysters in the August heat was called into question this week: Vibrio, a bacteria that can be contracted in salt water, has made an appearance in the region, the New York Times reported Wednesday. Three people in the New York City area have died recently and a fourth person was hospitalized after exposure to one variety of the bacteria that can be contracted by swimming in saltwater or eating raw oysters.
Vibrio parahaemolyticus — one of many varieties of the bacteria in New York waters — can become more prevalent when temperatures rise, though Governor Kathy Hochul issued a statement on how to identify and treat a more virulent version (vibrio vulnificus).
Among healthy people, vibrio is, “usually mild or moderate and runs its course in two to three days. In severe cases, hospitalization may be required,” with symptoms (stomach ailments, headache, fever, and chills) that appear 12-24 hours after consumption and lasts from a day to a week. It’s more dangerous for those with compromised immune systems and those with open wounds.
Vibrio isn’t the only concern when it comes to safe oysters. Norovirus and other contaminants can also affect shellfish, with the recent rainfall causing a temporary closure to shellfishing in regions of Suffolk county.
Not eating oysters in the summer used to be standard practice — with the adage advising they were best in “months with an -r.” Back then, oysters weren’t particularly appetizing during the warm-weather spawning season. With the introduction of triploid oysters in the late 1970s, (that ensures they’re tasty year-round) the old saying has gone by the wayside, with people enjoying oysters in the summer months, too.
Paul McCormick, of Great Gun Oysters in East Moriches, New York, points out the vigilance of farmers. “Public health is a chief concern of ours and we take no risks in this regard. We harvest in shade, ice our product immediately upon harvest, maintain this temperature control through delivery, and keep all gear on the farm, free from biofouling, and any birds,” he says.
A spokesperson for Grand Central Oyster Bar confirms, “the oyster farmers are doing everything possible in testing the waters” year-round.
Restaurants in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast often source oysters from the same swaths of the Chesapeake, the Atlantic, and up through Canadian waters (as well as some out West). When there’s an outbreak, restaurants affected reside in multiple states as opposed to just one.
In addition to a health a concern, there’s money on the line.
Last year around this time, in Washington, D.C. Old Ebbitt Grill, a stone’s throw from the White House, stopped serving oysters for ten days in August due to the prevalence of vibrio. The restaurant claims to be one of the safest places to eat oysters in the country because it tests every bushel that comes through the restaurant, and it sells a varied selection from around the country, on average 3000 a day. Few if any New York restaurants (that Eater is aware of) announced they would stop selling oysters during that stretch.
For years, the State of New York has implemented a vibrio control plan in effect from May 1 to September 30, with this year’s including a map of areas that are seeing vibrio. Oyster Bay Harbor, Cold Spring Harbor, Northport, Huntington Bay, and their tributaries are reportedly affected, as are adjacent areas of Long Island Sound.
McCormick says, “NY shellfish farms are allowed to operate only in waters certified for shellfish harvest by the Department of Environmental Conservation,” and that the state “has been under a strict vibrio control plan for years.”
The plan requires that all oysters must be harvested in the shade and must be placed immediately under temperature control. Shellfish farmers are required to tag the harvested products with detailed information that provides an immediate accountability trail for regulators to identify the source of any problems.
The government site notes storage and transport can play a role in outbreaks. “Storing shellfish inside a hot vehicle, with no means of cooling, can cause [bacteria] levels in the shellfish to double in less than 15 minutes.”
“One bad apple can ruin the industry for the rest of us – from farmers to dealers to seafood wholesalers to restaurants. So we are all incentivized to follow the strict regulations we have but also to embrace them,” says Travis Croxton of Rappahannock River Oysters — who started the company with his cousin, Ryan — which sells 250,000 oysters per week across the country, including Mermaid Inn, Carne Mare, STK, Ten Bells, and Red Hook Lobster Pound.
“We are not seeing any increase in incidents of issues with oysters. The outbreaks are usually pinpointed to certain areas and usually are issues with handling,” Croxton says. “And of course, we often believe that oysters get a bad rap when someone gets any type of illness and automatically associates it with having eaten oysters within a few days of their illness.”
Karen Rivera, president of Aeros Cultured Oyster Company, noted that vibrio is primarily, “a risk to immunocompromised individuals. They need to be vigilant not only about what they eat, but the water they exposed themselves to while recreating,” she says. “Healthy people eating New York-harvested oysters should not be afraid to continue to enjoy oysters in the summer.”