Whether you slurp them, suck them, or chew them, if you're an oyster lover like I am, then this story is going to terrify you. You've probably wondered once or twice if eating raw oysters is dangerous for your health — likely while eating them, because when else would you wonder that? — and unfortunately, after reading this news, it's gonna be hard to deny to yourself that they don't have the potential to be.
The reason this is a topic of conversation right now is horrifying: A Texas woman contracted flesh-eating bacteria and died according to CBS after eating and shucking raw oysters while she was on vacation in Louisiana with her wife and friend in Sept. 2017. It was soon determined that the woman, named Jeanette LeBlanc, had been infected by a deadly form of the Vibrio bacteria, Vibrio vulnificus, after she ate about two-dozen raw oysters. Not long after eating the oysters, LeBlanc reportedly began developing breathing problems and had severe wounds on her legs from the flesh-eating bacteria. After spending 21 days in the hospital, LeBlanc died on October 15, 2017.
This is a terrifying, devastating story, and definitely raises the question as to whether or not consuming raw oysters is actually a safe practice. According to an article on the U.S. Food & Drug Administration website, one can be at risk for contracting the condition if the oyster they're consuming is infected with the vibro vulnificus bacteria. This usually happens during the warmer months, because the bacteria thrives in that environment. "You can get seriously ill and even die from eating raw oysters contaminated with vibrio vulnificus," the U.S. FDA website reported, "a bacterium commonly found in waters where oysters are cultivated such as the Gulf of Mexico. Vibrio vulnificus is found in higher concentrations during the summer months as water becomes warmer."
The FDA website continued, the reason oysters are particularly susceptible is because the bacteria gets into oysters' tissue as they feed, and it remains there if you consume the oysters in a raw or undercooked form.
LeBlanc contracted Vibrio vulnificus, which is a deadly strain of the Vibrio bacteria. According to the Center for Disease Control, Vibrio infections, including the vulnificus strain, cause about 80,000 illnesses and 100 deaths in the United States every year — usually, the infection is curable, but the vulnificus strain is often deadly. Most of these illnesses happen between May and October when water temperatures are warmer, but you can still get sick from eating raw or undercooked oysters during any month of the year — and raw oysters from typically colder waters can also cause vibriosis.
Well that's terrifying.
And to make matters worse, there's no way to distinguish a good or healthy oyster from a bad or bacteria-infested one. According to Foodsafety.org, "an oyster that contains harmful bacteria doesn’t look, smell, or even taste different from any other oyster. The only way to kill harmful bacteria in oysters is to cook them properly."
According to the CDC, "most people who contract Vibriosis from raw oysters will only experience diarrhea and vomiting, and those with these milder cases typically recover in about three days. But in some people, more serious illness can occur, resulting in bloodstream infections and severe blistering skin lesions," the CDC says.
While the CDC cautions people against eating raw oysters altogether, they also offer a number preventative tips for cooking oysters before you eat them — from recommending you always wash your hands with soap and water after handling raw fish to avoiding brackish water (a mixture of fresh and sea water) if you have any wounds or cuts. You can find the CDC's list of tips here.
In the meantime, if you still love oysters and can't fathom a life without them, maybe try them fried, baked, or boiled next time.