Restaurant-goers Sickened by Raw Oysters, Again

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March 18, 2009 - 12:24 PM

Richard Simms

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (WTVC-TV) - Just about two months after a previous outbreak, more illnesses have been reported by people who ate raw oysters at the Boathouse Rotisserie and Raw Bar. The Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department recommends that consumers avoid raw oyster consumption.

Nineteen people reported illnesses after eating at the Boathouse between January 12th and 18th. Recent illnesses associated with raw oyster consumption included 9 ill individuals who ate there between March 5th and March 8th.

Following an inspection at the restaurant, health officials did not identify the facility as a source of the infection.

Following standard protocol, the Health Department conducted the investigation to determine the cause of the illness. Persons reporting illness have been contacted and interviewed. Laboratory testing of ill individuals identified Norovirus as the cause of the illness. The establishment fully cooperated with the Health Department's procedures, including halting service of implicated oysters when notified of the illnesses.

Bacterial and viral pathogens can be carried in oysters, including Vibrio, Hepatitis A and Norovirus. Even in healthy individuals, these pathogens cause illness. These illnesses can be severe, particularly in the elderly or in persons with weakened immune systems. In addition, most of these illnesses can then be spread to other individuals through person to person contact.

"Oysters should be cooked thoroughly," says Margaret Zylstra, Epidemiology Manager at the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department. "Any oyster not thoroughly cooked poses the risk of foodborne illness."

Consumers can continue to enjoy oysters in many cooked preparations by following this advice:

At Restaurants and other Foodservice Establishments:

         Order oysters fully cooked.

For Home Preparation:

         In the Shell:

1.    Purchase oysters with the shells closed. Throw away any oysters with shells already opened.

         To prepare oysters for eating, choose one of the following methods:

1.    Boil oysters until the shells open. Once open, boil for an additional 3-5 minutes.

2.    Steamer - add oysters to water that is already steaming and cook live oysters until the shells open; once open steam for another 4-9 minutes.

3.    Use smaller pots to boil or steam oysters. Using larger pots, or cooking too many oysters at one time, may cause uneven heat distribution, which may cause the oysters in the middle to not get fully cooked.

4.    Discard any oysters that do not open during cooking.

         Shucked Oysters:

         To prepare oysters for eating, choose one of the following methods:

1.    Boil or simmer shucked oysters for at least 3 minutes or until the edges curl.

2.    Fry at 375 degrees for at least 3 minutes.

3.    Broil 3 inches from heat for 3 minutes.

4.    Bake at 450 degrees for 10 minutes.

Noroviruses are a group of viruses that are the most frequent cause of gastrointestinal illness outbreaks. The symptoms of norovirus illness usually include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and some stomach cramping. Sometimes people have a low-grade fever, chills, headache, muscle aches, and a general sense of tiredness. Most people show symptoms within 48 hours of exposure to the virus. The illness is self-limiting and usually subsides within one to two days, most often without serious complications. Persons affected by AIDS, and persons with chronic alcohol abuse, liver, stomach or blood disorders, cancer, diabetes or kidney disease are more susceptible to complications from infections with diseases associated with eating raw oysters.

Oysters cultivated in coastal areas close to human activities can be contaminated by human sewage, which can spread different types of viruses, including Norovirus. Oysters identified as having been served to the ill individuals were harvested from Area 2C Shellfish Growing Waters in Mississippi on February 24, 2009. Mississippi Department of Marine Resources has initiated a voluntary recall of oysters associated with this harvest area and date. Oysters from this harvest batch were served at two area restaurants, the Boathouse Rotisserie and Raw Bar and Easy Bistro and Bar.

Consumers who ate raw oysters on or after February 24, 2009 and are concerned about the origin of oysters they have recently purchased should contact the place of purchase to determine if the oysters were harvested from the identified area. Individuals who are concerned that they may have become ill as a result of consuming oysters should contact their medical provider and the TN State Department of Health at 1-800-404-3006.

For more information, call the FDA Food Safety Hotline at 1-888-SAFEFOOD or the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department at (423) 209-8190.


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