The raw Florida oysters that sickened at least 11 people during March and April were contaminated with an unusual but mild strain of cholera.
“This is the first outbreak of illness from this strain of cholera in Florida, and we have yet to be able to find any other cases in the United States,” said Sterling Ivey, spokesman with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS).
The toxigenic Vibrio cholerae O75 strain detected in the oysters, from one of Apalachicola Bay’s most productive oyster zones, is related to V. cholerae O1 and O139 that cause cholera epidemics, but the O75 strain causes less severe illness.
“There are stomachaches and diarrhea for a couple of days and then it’s over,” said Leslie Palmer, director of FDAC’s Division of Aquaculture. “There have been no hospitalizations and everyone recovered.”
The oysters that caused the illnesses were harvested between March 21 and April 6 from a two-mile section of Apalachicola Bay near Eastpoint called Area 1642. Locally, it’s known as Cat Point.
Ivey said state officials are cooperating with the Food and Drug Administration and the Interstate Shellfish Sanitation Conference in investigating the outbreak. “There is ongoing, collaborative discussions among all state and federal partners as we look at this new pathogen to analyze the first-ever outbreak of this unique strain of Vibrio cholera,” he said.
Ivey said these strains of cholera occur naturally in sea and coastal waters, but could also occur through pollution sources such as sewerage outflows. He said the investigation has led to speculation that an Army Corps of Engineers dredging operation, conducted between Feb. 21 and March 22, may have stirred up organisms on the floor of the bay that led to the cholera illnesses.
The state is also investigating a sewer break discovered April 8 in front of a former welding facility. By the time repairs were completed, an estimated 500 gallons had leaked on the ground, but it is not known whether the sewer line break had any connectoin to the cholera.
On April 29, FDACS closed Area 1642 to oystering and later asked harvesters and dealers to recall all oysters taken between March 21 and April 30 — a move that has cost the local industry tens of thousands of dollars.
At the request of the federal regulators, FDACS sent oyster samples from the closed harvesting area to an FDA lab for analysis. The FDA did not detect Vibrio cholerae in any of the samples and allowed Florida to reopen the harvest area at sunrise Wednesday.
A day earlier, however, the FDA issued a national warning to avoid eating or selling oysters from Area 1642. The FDA said oysters from that part of Apalachicola Bay were distributed in Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi and North Carolina, and may have been distributed to other states as well. The FDA, in its news release, put the total of Vibrio infections at eight confirmed and one suspected.
According to Palmer, seven of those who became ill after eating raw or lightly cooked oysters traced back to Area 1642 were from Florida, and four illnesses were reported by individuals who consumed oysters in the state but later returned to their homes outside of Florida.
Among those affected, she said, were a 12-year-old boy, a 27-year-old woman and a 72-year-old woman. Most ranged in age from 30 to 40.
Because no additional illnesses have been reported since April 13, it is believed the outbreak associated with oysters and this strain of Vibrio cholerae is over, according to Ivey.
“It’s a huge problem that’s for sure. It’s been a disaster,” said Robert Webb, owner of Webb’s Seafood, headquartered in Youngstown with an operation in Eastpoint.
“I’ve picked up oysters everywhere, in Florida and in different states,” he said in describing how he had to retrieve the recalled shellfish. “Even if you could have it tested and found it proved they had no cholera, they would have to be destroyed.”
Webb said he would have preferred that state officials had issued a cautionary closing of Area 1642 as soon as they became aware of the cholera outbreak, rather than waiting until April 29.
“I felt they were slow on the recall. I think an ounce or prevention is worth a pound of cure,” he said.
Webb estimated he has retrieved close to 1,000 bags of oysters, for which he and the other dealers had been paying $18 a bag to oystermen.
He said most customers have been issued credit for the recalled product. “They haven’t stopped buying oysters, and I’ve been able to get oysters but not the amount I’ve needed,” he said. “(But) I fear there will be a domino effect that will take place after (the outbreak is publicized).”
“It’s killed me on production,” said David Barber, owner of Barber’s Seafood in Eastpoint. “I’m sitting here today trying to get two trucks out, and I’ll be lucky to get one out, because all of a sudden the oystermen aren’t working, or the bay’s closed.
“The recall was a nightmare,” he said. “We had to take whatever they had left over and put it back in the truck.”
Barber said most customers have agreed to trade out recalled product for fresh oysters from other sectors of the bay, but that he bears the cost of picking up the recalled oysters as well as lost profits. He estimated he so far had taken back about $6,000 to $7,000 worth of oysters.
“I got a letter from one distributor that they will charge me for picking back up the oysters. They’re going to invoice me for them,” he said.
At a meeting of the Franklin County Commission earlier this month, County Commissioner Bevin Putnal, a full-time oysterman, asked Palmer whether the cholera might have affected any other seafood.
She said that while any seafood can be affected, the bacteria remains alive only in raw product, such as oysters. Thorough cooking can destroy the pathogen.
A version of this report was published May 11, 2011 in the Apalachicola/Carrabelle Times. David Adlerstein is city editor of the newspaper.