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Being on the safe side with oysters.

Being on the safe side with oysters Enjoying oysters, as described on the preceding pages, also requires some cautions. Because oysters are filter-feeders, they pick up any contaminants in the water where they live. Manmade pollution occasionally threatens some oyster beds. Naturally occurring bacteria and viruses, though harmless to oysters, may prove unpleasant or even toxic to people.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration says raw oysters are safe to eat if growers and consumers follow a few guidelines.

May through August, buy oysters from cold waters. Safe waters include the north Pacific and north Atlantic coasts of Canada and parts of the U.S. (reaching into northern California), and New Zealand and Australia. In other areas, harmful microorganisms may increase as water warms; conservative experts suggest caution April through November.

Oysters in waters that get warm in the summer spawn then; they're safe to eat, but spawning gives them a mushy texture that isn't very palatable. Now being introduced are tropical species such as the Suminoe, which spawn at even higher temperatures and have a longer harvest season. Also underway is work on genetically altered triploids--which spawn very little.

If you suspect an oyster is bad, don't eat it. If you have eaten a dubious one, watch for symptoms such as tingling or numbness of the face and mouth, muscular weakness, chills, fever, headache, nausea, diarrhea, and abdominal pain; if you experience any of these, see a doctor immediately.

Don't eat raw oysters if you have liver problems, an iron imbalance, or a weakened immune system. One bacterium, Vibrio vulnificus, sometimes present from April through November in oysters from the southeastern Atlantic coast and Gulf of Mexico, can cause fatal blood poisoning. It's also recommended that pregnant women not eat raw oysters.

If you're harvesting your own, obey posted warnings about polluted waters and paralytic shellfish poisoning (PSP, or red tide). PSP is caused when shellfish, then humans, ingest a toxin produced by a few species of dinoflagellates. These microscopic organisms occasionally multiply greatly, appearing as a red color when water temperature rises.

To check the safety of oyster beds, here are numbers to call. Alaska: Environmental Conservation, (907) 465-2609; California: Health Services, (707) 576-2145; Oregon: Environmental Services, (503) 229-6313; Washington: Environmental Health, Shellfish, (206) 753-5992.

For more details, send for a free publication, For Oyster And Clam Lovers, The Water Must Be Clean (number 85-2200); write to Consumer Inquiries, FDA, 5600 Fishers Lane, Rockville, Md. 20857. Many libraries have the article "Fewer Months Safe for Eating Raw Gulf Oysters" (FDA Consumer, June 1988).
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Date:Feb 1, 1990
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