WAKULLA COUNTY, Fla. — Oysters are safe. That’s what industry veterans said Thursday after cases of a sometimes deadly bacteria have shown up on Florida beaches and at restaurants.
Vibrio is a collection of nasty naturally occurring bacteria. Most often it causes diarrhea but can cost people limbs, even kill in extreme cases.
Florida has seen a slew of beach-related cases recently. Swimmers can become infected when an open wound comes into contact with a vibrio strain in the water. People most commonly get it, however, by eating raw shellfish, like oysters.
Though the warm summer months bring the highest risk of vibrio, 42-year oyster veteran Robert Webb, who shucks and processes them at Webb Seafood in Youngstown, says not to worry.
“There are safe oysters to eat here," Webb said. "We do have them available.”
To ease customer concerns, Webb has been using a couple of post-harvest techniques to rid the bacteria from his stock. His team then does lab work to make sure they’re safe before shipping them to spots across the country.
"It’s been a struggle for people to realize that that is an opinion,” Webb said.
Webb is working at a time when oysters are getting hit with a double whammy. Vibrio is a seasonal concern, but it’s coming as Florida recovers from Hurricane Michael. The strong storm destroyed several farming operations in the panhandle.
Staff at Panacea Oyster Co-Op in Wakulla County said their operations would produce 50,000 oysters a week. Now, it's around 5,000.
Over the years, Webb said he has had to rely on out of state sources more and more to meet demand because Florida can’t keep up.
“We’re looking at all the aquaculture we can get to keep our business going," Webb said. "Everybody wants fresh from Florida oysters. That’s the best tasting oyster. It’s something that we really need to get behind."
Florida's Ag Commissioner Nikki Fried spent Thursday pushing for more to invest in the state's aquaculture. Fried said Florida ranks fourth in the nation for shellfish production but would like to see it become number one. She met with Webb and other industry leaders to find out what they need to make that goal a reality.
“We should be the leaders in the entire country," Fried said, "exporting our great fish that we have here in our state.”
For Webb, it's one step at a time. He’d love to have more Florida oysters to shell and sell — but right now — he just wants people to eat them up without worry.
Severe cases of vibriosis are rare. According to the Centers for Disease Control, about 100 die each year from it in the US. But — if you’re still worried — fully cook oysters before eating.