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Vibrio Sickens At Least 12 in Maryland Linked to Crab. How Does Vibrio Contaminate Shellfish?

Posted in Outbreaks & Recalls,Vibrio on July 17, 2018

Crab meat imported from Venezuela sickens at least 12 in Maryland with Vibrio infection, health officials say.  Four have been hospitalized so far and no deaths have been reported.  Interviews indicate those affected consumed fresh, non-pasteurized crab meats from a plastic tub prior to falling ill.  While the brands consumed may have different, the labels indicated meat imported from Venezuela.

The crab products of interest were prepared in both households and restaurants according to a Maryland Health Department news release.  Those affected report consuming dishes ranging from crab cakes, to seafood salad.  Even crab Benedict.

Symptoms of Vibrio include watery diarrhea, abdominal cramping, vomiting, nausea, fever, and chills.  Anyone exhibiting symptoms should seek medical attention.  While anyone cane become infected with vibriosis (the illness associated with vibrio infection), certain groups of people are at higher risk.  Those with a compromised immune system, especially those already suffering from chronic liver disease are more likely to fall ill.  Other activities can increase your risk of becoming infected.  Activities such as consuming raw seafood, particularly raw oysters are at higher risk.  Additionally, those with exposed open wounds exposed to brackish or salt water are at higher risk.

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), vibriosis is responsible for 80,000 illnesses and around 100 deaths each year in the United States.  Around 52,000 can be attributed to eating contaminated food.  The most reported species of vibrio is Vibrio parahaemolyticus, is estimated to cause 45,000 illnesses each year in the United States.

At this time, the health department is suggesting consumers avoid consuming crab meat from Venezuela until further notice.

Where Does Your Crab Come From?

The unfortunate truth is that while guidance indicates avoidance of Venezuelan crab, you may not know exactly where your food is coming from. According to Oceana, an ocean conservancy organization, as much as 33% of the seafood purchased in the United States is mislabeled.

While the product may be imported from anywhere around the world, the National Aquarium reports that under current laws, as long as the product is pasteurized in-state, it can be relabeled as “Maryland Crab Meat.”  This complicates about a third of the seafood purchased each year in the United States.

Personally, I will be avoiding all things crab until this situation is resolved.  Summer is in full swing, so raw shellfish and shellfish in general is a big “no no” according to old wives tales.

Months With the Letter R?

According to Old Wives Tales, or lore, or whatever you want to call it, shellfish should be consumed only in months with the letter R.  That essentially includes the months of September through April, cutting off just before May.

There is some truth behind every “lore” and this one is no different.  Though more caution should be considered.  Most cases of vibriosis occur during the warmer months.  Think May, June, July, and August.  All missing that prophetic letter “R”.

The warmer months of Summer are conducive to vibrio bacteria thriving, which increases during those non “R” months.  Vibrio bacteria are still present, but in potentially lower numbers.  The truth is that vibriosis can be caught at any time in the year.  Oysters, mussels, clam, and crab should always be approached with caution.  But why?

Why is Shellfish Risky?

There are many arguments for this high-risk food category.  Is it the Red Tide?  Does it have to do with the reproductive cycle?  How about how shellfish eat?  So many different takes on the same question.

Red Tide

Some point fingers at the infamous “Red Tide.”  Red Tide refers to a phenomenon where high concentrations of an algae changes the color of the water, giving it a red tint.  This generates algae at concentrations that are toxic to humans.  Consuming shellfish who have absorbed the toxin results in a condition known as “paralytic shellfish poisoning,” common enough to have its own acronym PSP.

Fortunately, red tide levels are closely monitored and harvesting during those periods is regulated and banned.  This is a known hazard, so shellfish are also regularly inspected and tested for this toxin.  Additionally, many shellfish such as oysters and mussels are farmed instead of wild harvested to decrease risk of contamination.

Reproductive Cycle

Another approach to the “R” rule involves the reproductive cycle of shellfish.  Many shellfish spawn during the summer months.  Some believe that this changes the taste and texture of the shellfish, which in turn deters consumption of the organisms during the rest time they need to repopulate.

Shellfish Eating Methods

Shellfish eat differently than you and me.  They don’t pull up to a table with a napkin on their lap.  They also eat differently than many fish.  They don’t open their mouths and catch their food.  Instead, shellfish are filter feeders.  They feed by filtering water into their bodies and retaining the nutrients to support their bodily functions.

The problem is that Vibrio bacteria, along with other bacteria, inhabit the coastal waters where shellfish live.  When someone consumes raw or undercooked shellfish, they are also consuming the viruses, bacteria, and pathogens that could be still inside the shellfish.  This is the biggest risk to human safety where shellfish consumption is concerned.

Filter Feeding Leaves Shellfish Vulnerable to Contamination

Filter feeders such as crabs and oysters can filter anywhere from 20 to 100 liters of their water environment per day.  They take in the surrounding water and hold onto small particles and organisms to feed themselves.  Harmful bacteria can often hitch a ride and hang out inside the crab.  In fact, the concentration of Vibrio inside a crab can be 100 times higher than concentrations found in the surrounding water.

This concentration leads to food contamination and illness.  In fact, Vibrio parahaemolyticus and Vibrio vulnificus harvested during summer months could exceed 103 CFU/g and have even been found as high as 105 CFU/g.

When that number of pathogenic bacteria are consumed, particularly in raw or undercooked seafood, illness is likely.

A Word of Caution

Protect yourself and your family and NEVER consume raw or undercooked meat, especially seafood.  Avoid shellfish during the Summer months to reduce your risk.  And be sure to check out for updates on outbreaks, recalls, and tips to help keep you and your family safe from foodborne infection.

Vibrio lawyer Jory Lange is one of the nation’s leading food poisoning lawyers. Mr. Lange has helped families from the Mid-Atlantic to the Midwest, from Florida to California, and in states across the nation.

If you or someone in your family tested positive for vibriosis and you would like to know more about your legal rights, call (833) 330-3663 to get answers now.

By: Heather Van Tassell, Contributing Writer (Non-Lawyer)