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Oyster safety rules are easy to beat

Pallets of oysters in a cooler at an oyster plant in the Florida Panhandle. Dealers have two hours to bring the oysters’ internal temperature to 55 degrees.
Pallets of oysters in a cooler at an oyster plant in the Florida Panhandle. Dealers have two hours to bring the oysters’ internal temperature to 55 degrees. Sun Sentinel/TNS

If you dine on raw oysters, you’re trusting your health to people like Apalachicola seafood dealer Sammy Crum, oysterman Jonathan Pace and the state of Florida.

Crum says he bears no responsibility for the four people who died over six weeks after eating oysters he sold, and he has no sympathy for anyone who dies after eating a raw oyster.

Pace left two 60-pound sacks of oysters on his boat overnight, violating Florida laws requiring quick cooling of oysters harvested to be eaten raw. Regulators found them in Crum’s cooler, marked as safe to ship to the local raw bar.

When it comes to oysters and food safety, a porous system of oversight causes uncertainties about what’s on your plate, where it came from, and who will be accountable if something goes wrong, a Sun Sentinel investigation found.

To many in Florida’s old-school oyster industry, there is no question who is to blame when someone gets sick: the consumer.

At Apalachicola Bay Seafood, a family-operated business where oysters are washed, weighed and packed outside on a covered deck, Crum said it’s not his fault that four people died after eating oysters from his company in summer 2011.

Crum said he sold those oysters to other dealers. “What they do with them once they get them from me, I have no idea.”

And those who get sick from eating oysters, he said, don’t heed the warnings and “shouldn’t be eating them to start with. … If they go ahead and do it, I have no sympathy for them.”

Since 2010, state regulators have repeatedly cited Crum’s company for violations, sending 15 warning letters. They’ve issued just one fine: for $100.

The honor system

Safe handling is critical to protect the public from Vibrio vulnificus, naturally occurring but deadly bacteria found in warm coastal waters and Gulf of Mexico oysters. The bacteria can be present in any Gulf oyster, no matter how carefully handled, but it proliferates in warm temperatures.

Infections are mild in healthy people, but can quickly turn fatal in those with weakened immune systems. On average, one person has died each month after eating oysters in the United States.

Florida’s safety program focuses on reducing risk by cooling oysters to slow bacterial growth. The state relies on harvesters, dealers and restaurants to follow strict rules governing where and how oysters are collected, the temperature at which they are stored, and the labels that stipulate whether they must be cooked or are safe to eat raw.

It’s largely an honor system, and it’s easy to beat.

Florida’s penalties are lighter than some other Gulf states, allowing harvesters to rack up repeated violations with limited consequence. The state wildlife agency can take away their oyster licenses, but has suspended only four temporarily, in the past 10 years. Florida has never held a dealer responsible for an illness.

Cooling oysters at Barber’s seafood Tony March, a foreman at Barber’s Seafood in Eastpoint, carries pallets of oysters into a cooler at the plant in the Florida Panhandle. Dealers have two hours to bring the oysters’ internal temperature to 55 degrees.

It’s not uncommon for oysters to go through two or more dealers before being sold to a restaurant. When someone gets sick, inspectors backtrack through that trail. They rely on tags at the restaurant showing the suppliers and place of harvest and the dealers’ temperature logs and records, and hope they are accurate.

They sometimes aren’t. Northeastern seafood dealers have purchased Gulf oysters because they’re cheaper, then re-tagged them as coming from cooler, local waters.

Gulf industry representatives and regulators have acknowledged to federal auditors that mislabeling is easy and widespread, and driven by “a considerable financial incentive.”

Even when oysters are properly labeled, there’s no guarantee. Two people died in Washington, D.C., in 2010 after eating raw Gulf oysters labeled for cooking only.

A declining industry

Oyster safety starts with harvesters. While other Gulf states use dredges and on-board refrigeration, Florida’s oystermen still collect oysters the way it was done a century ago.

It’s monotonous work in a declining industry, hours in the sun on flatboats maneuvering long-handled rakes known as tongs, heaving up piles of shells that these days might yield only a handful of oysters large enough to sell.

“I know a lot of these guys … they’ll go out here oystering in the morning time and they’ll go in and clean houses in the afternoon,” said Shannon Hartsfield, president of the Franklin County Seafood Workers Association.

Under Florida law, oystering is allowed only in the daytime, beginning at sunrise. Harvesters work in pairs, one on each side of the boat, piling their hauls onto a culling board where they separate and return the small ones. Oysters large enough to legally harvest are put into mesh sacks and labeled with the harvester’s license number, date, time and location.

The state sets seasonal limits on catches. This summer in Apalachicola Bay, the limit was four 60-pound bags a day. With a going price of $45 per bag, that amounted to $180 for a good day’s work.

Harvesters must keep their oysters shaded and take them directly to a licensed dealer. In the summer months, when the risk of Vibrio vulnificus illnesses is highest, harvesters must have their catch in by 11 a.m.

They deliver their oysters to a row of warehouses, several of them clustered along a channel off the bay. Piles of shucked oyster shells are stacked alongside the buildings, and seagulls squawk overhead.

“There used to be oyster houses all up and down the beach,” said David Barber, owner of Barber’s Seafood, one of three dealers on this stretch of 2-lane highway.

Barber’s is the largest dealer of Florida oysters, he said, selling almost exclusively in-state. His nine semi-trucks make weekly runs to South Florida.

Harvesters arrive at Barber’s by boat or truck, unloading sacks of oysters to be weighed and placed on pallets. Workers on a loading dock shovel ice on the oysters before a forklift carries them to a cooler.

Temperature control is critical: Vibrio vulnificus are fast-growing bacteria that double in just 10 minutes. Cooling oysters after they’re taken from the water stops that growth and reduces the risk of illness. Dealers have two hours to bring oysters’ internal temperature to 55 degrees.

Big incentive, little penalties

One-third of Florida dealers checked by the FDA failed to cool oysters to the required temperature three years in a row. The state’s inspection files contained numerous instances of “temperature critical limit failures,” the FDA noted in 2014. The FDA placed the state under a corrective action plan and last year noted significant improvement.

State wildlife officers have caught harvesters leaving oysters unrefrigerated overnight, hidden in the bottom of boats and marshes, stored in bilge water that smells of gasoline and in the bed of a pickup truck dirty with wild animal blood and hair. They’ve hauled them in trucks with no shade and left them on boats in the summer sun.

A common violation: oystering at night, out of sight of wildlife officers, in illegal harvest areas where oysters may be more plentiful. “Sometimes the oysters get really good,” Hartsfield said, and harvesters “just can’t help themselves.”

The incentive to skirt the rules is high, and the penalties so light, oystermen are back on the water committing new violations in as little as a week, the Sun Sentinel found in a review of hundreds of court cases.

Jason Shuman was stopped while hauling oysters unshaded in a truck next to a gas can in 2013. It was one of five oyster violations in six months for Shuman. His penalty: six months’ probation and a $300 fine that he still hasn’t paid.

Other states have harsher penalties. Florida’s oyster violations are misdemeanors with fines for repeat violations increasing up to $1,000. In Texas, certain repeat violations are felonies punishable by up to 10 years in prison and fines as high as $10,000.

Hartsfield, the Seafood Workers Association president, has pushed for tighter enforcement to crack down on violators. “Some of them are living for the day,” he said. “Those are the kind of guys we’re trying to weed out.”

Harvesting from areas that are temporarily or permanently closed for pollution or bacteria can be a serious public health threat — and it happens, state records show.

The state closed an area of Apalachicola Bay in 2011 after 10 people were sickened from Vibrio cholerae, bacteria that cause less serious illness than vulnificus. But that didn’t stop a dozen oystermen who were caught harvesting there.

Pace was one of them. Two years later, he was again accused of harvesting in a closed area with the oysters he left overnight on his boat.

The state can suspend or revoke commercial oyster licenses but rarely does. Though an average of 900 people are licensed each year, the state has suspended only four in the past decade.

Hunter Shiver lost hers, but only for a month. She and two others harvested 25 bags of oysters in August 2013 from a polluted channel, then left the oysters under an abandoned house for 12 hours.

Florida’s oyster dealers have been caught buying oysters from prohibited waters and without the tags that are required to show they were harvested legally. They’ve hauled oysters in unrefrigerated trucks.

The oysters can be confiscated, but many violations result in little more than a warning letter and follow-up inspection. While some Florida dealers have had few violations, others are cited multiple times each year.

Barber’s, one of the state’s largest dealers, has received 38 warning letters since 2010, but the state fined it just nine times for a total of $2,500, records show. The violations include minor infractions such as insects in the shucking room, mud on the walls or missing lids on garbage cans, said Stephanie Barber, who owns the business with her husband.

The state traced oysters from Barber’s to six Vibrio vulnificus illnesses since 2010 and listed it as one of several dealers in 11 others, but never found the company at fault, records show. Seven of those people died.

Oftentimes, restaurants serve oysters from multiple dealers, making it impossible to determine the source, Stephanie Barber said. “We had one not long ago that was five dealers,” she said. “All they know is they had five bags (of oysters) from five different dealers.”

And when someone gets sick, David Barber said, “It generally is somebody that’s had some kind of stomach or liver or bad immune system that shouldn’t have been eating them raw … When a person eats raw oysters, he’s more or less making that choice on himself.”

Barber said he’s sympathetic, “But that’s just part of our business.”

Mislabeling

One of the most serious violations by dealers is mislabeling, which endangers consumers and clouds investigations when things go wrong.

Dealers are supposed to relabel oysters that aren’t cooled within the time limits, replacing a white tag that indicates they’re safe to eat raw with a green one that means they can be sold only for cooking or to a treatment plant where the bacteria are eliminated.

Gulf oyster dealers and regulators told federal auditors in 2011 that mislabeling was common and difficult for the government to detect. A senior regulator in Florida told them he knew of “several occasions where oysters were served raw” that failed to meet the cooling requirements.

Consumers in the northeast have been fooled into thinking the oysters they’re eating came from local waters when they actually were from the Gulf. Dealers there have sometimes substituted Gulf oysters because they’re so much cheaper, industry representatives have said.

A reported illness from New England oysters, where the water is not as warm, is a sure sign. “If somebody gets sick from a shellfish that was tagged in New England waters, they assume that it was mislabeled product, somebody taking perhaps Gulf Coast product, slapping a New England tag on it to increase the price and then shipping it out,” Bob Rheault, executive director of the East Coast Shellfish Growers Association, said in a 2010 presentation on Vibrio vulnificus to industry representatives.

He told the Sun Sentinel last month that the practice, known as tag fraud, is “still a challenge.”

A Vibrio vulnificus illness in Florida triggers investigations by three state agencies, but determining whether anyone mishandled the oysters is a difficult task. The restaurants have already sold the oysters from the suspect batch, and inspectors rely on dealers’ own records showing how the oysters were harvested and cooled.

The investigations are “only as good as the information on the paper,” said Kal Knickerbocker, director of the division that regulates oyster dealers at Florida’s Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

In one-third of the Vibrio vulnificus illnesses in Florida since 1999, inspectors could not pinpoint where the oysters were harvested, according to government data.

Criminal charges

While state inspectors never blamed the family-run Apalachicola Bay Seafood for any deaths, they have found plenty wrong.

In summer 2010, a 55-year-old Georgia man died after eating oysters processed by the company. A month later, inspectors caught workers washing and boxing oysters — common preparation for sale on the half shell — that hadn’t met the cooling requirements and should have been sold only for cooking. Those oysters could have made their way to the raw market, “increasing the risk of additional Vibrio vulnificus cases, and perhaps deaths,” an inspection report said.

At the family-owned Apalachicola Bay Seafood in Florida’s panhandle, oysters are washed, weighed and packed outside on a covered deck.

The following summer, when four people died during a six-week period from oysters traced to Apalachicola Bay Seafood, inspectors found oysters there measuring 74 degrees.

In 2014, Sammy Crum’s stepson was indicted on charges he ran an unlicensed and highly profitable oyster dealership — using tags and invoices from Apalachicola Bay Seafood.

James “Bubba” Braswell sold more than $624,000 in oysters during one two-year period. Harvesters brought their haul to Braswell’s house, where the oysters were weighed and put into a shipping truck. If the truck wasn’t there, the oysters were left in an unrefrigerated shed or out in the open.

“They would set them out on the driveway,” Steven Thomas, an investigator with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, told the Sun Sentinel. “They may stay there overnight; they may sit there for an hour.”

Braswell is one of the only Florida oyster dealers criminally prosecuted. He pleaded guilty in 2014 to federal conspiracy and false labeling charges and was sentenced to 18 months in prison.

Investigators served a search warrant on Apalachicola Bay Seafood, but no one from the business was charged.

To Crum and others in this oyster town, the concern about Vibrio vulnificus and the regulations that come with it are overblown.

“I think it’s all uncalled for,” Crum said as he and his grandson loaded freshly caught oysters into a sprayer to be washed, weighed and boxed for sale to a local raw bar. “We did this back in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, seven days a week. Oysters like this would lay in the house for three or four days with no refrigeration, no nothing. They’d shuck ’em Monday morning and never had problems.”

Crum said the biggest problem with the oyster business today is too much regulation: “The people that make all these rules up don’t know a thing about oysters.”

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