Vibrio Education Workshops

For those of you who were not able to attend the workshop held in your state recently, here is a summary of the information presented. You can access the pdf version of the powerpoint presentation on Vibrio Management Plans, as well as the Vibrio Harvest Brochure and our rack card with Transportation Tips for Perfect Shellfish that were handed out. There is a more information on our Vibrio page.

The main purpose of this effort was to educate growers, harvesters, dealers, truckers and consumers about vibrio bacteria and the potential health hazards they pose to consumers. But more importantly this workshop was intended to spread the word about regulatory developments that could destroy our industry. The FDA is stiffening regulations and may soon force widespread post-harvest processing (PHP) of raw shellfish during summer months. To prevent further FDA action (such as seasonal closures and mandated PHP) and to reduce illnesses and protect markets we need to do a better job of keeping shellstock cool throughout the supply chain.

This issue is complex, so for a full understanding I suggest you check out the Vibrio Management Plans presentation, but here is the quick version. Vibrio bacteria can occur naturally and are not associated with pollution or sewage. They are more common in warm waters and can cause illness (such as gastroenteritis, vomiting and diarrhea) but for consumers who are immune-compromised (suffering from diabetes, liver disease, AIDS or taking immuno-suppressive drugs) Vibrio vulnificus can lead to a grisly death.

Last October the FDA issued guidance requiring Gulf states (and any state with two Vibrio vulnificus illnesses related to shellfish from their waters) to shuck or post-harvest process all oysters harvested during warm-water months from April to October. Post-harvest processing includes gamma irradiation, pasteurization, extreme freezing and pressure treatment. Each of these processes involves expensive equipment, and can double the cost of shellfish. They also kill the shellfish. My greatest fear is that mandated post-harvest processing will invite a flood of sterilized shellfish imports at prices that we cannot compete with.

Vibrios are more of a challenge for southern states, but almost every state has had some issue with vibrios. There was a Vibrio vulnificus death in Rhode Island two years ago. No state can say it does not have a potential problem, and for many it is probably just a matter of time before they have to implement strict new regulations.

The best way for your state to avoid joining those states that are required to process their shellfish is to avoid illness. For Vibrios it’s easy to reduce illness by keeping shellstock cool. These bacteria do not grow below 45° F, but if shellstock is allowed to warm up, vibrios can multiply at alarming rates, turning safe shellfish into potentially toxic time bombs. Talk to your dealer and your trucker about temperature control and look for ways to keep shellfish from warming up on deck while you are working. Tell others in our industry who may not be handling shellfish properly that they could damage markets and usher in restrictive regulations if they don’t clean up their act.

We also need to get politically active. Invite your representatives out for a tour and explain what mandated PHP and seasonal closures would do to your livelihood. The loss of summer markets and replacement of locally produced shellfish by cheap imports would put thousands of harvesters and growers out of business.

This is not a time to stand around and hope this problem goes away. Get involved with your state and national associations to protect your livelihood.

Thanks for your help in addressing this important issue.


Bob Rheault
Executive Director, East Coast Shellfish Growers Association
(401) 783-3360