FDA Issues Shellfish Warning

Toxins have sickened at least 31 people in Oregon alone
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Jun 11, 2024 2:28 PM CDT
FDA Warns of Poisoning From Shellfish in 2 States
Visitors look for clams to dig along the beach at Fort Stevens State Park in Oregon in 2016.   (Joshua Bessex/The Astorian via AP, File)

The Food and Drug Administration says consumers should avoid eating shellfish from Oregon and Washington state, as they may be contaminated with toxins that cause paralytic shellfish poisoning. At least 31 people have been sickened in Oregon so far, according to state health officials. Here's the situation, per the AP:

  • The warning: Avoid oysters and bay clams harvested from Netarts and Tillamook bays in northern Oregon since May 28, as well as shellfish harvested from areas around Willapa Bay in southern Washington since May 26. They may be contaminated with high levels of PSP, a naturally occurring toxin. Shellfish harvested during that period were distributed beyond Oregon and Washington to Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Nevada, and New York. The FDA has warned restaurants and retailers in those states not to serve it.

  • The outbreak: Elevated levels of toxins were first detected in shellfish on the Oregon coast on May 17, fish and wildlife officials said. The state Health Authority has asked people who have harvested or eaten Oregon shellfish since May 13 to fill out a survey intended to help investigators.
  • Shutdowns: Oregon has closed the state's entire coastline to the harvesting of mussels, razor clams, and bay clams. Three bays, including those named in the FDA advisory, are closed to commercial oyster harvesting. Neighboring Washington has also closed its Pacific coastline to the harvesting of shellfish, including mussels, clams, scallops, and oysters.
  • Paralytic shellfish poisoning: PSP is caused by saxitoxin, a naturally occurring toxin produced by algae. Saxitoxin is a neurotoxin, meaning it can damage nerve tissue. People who eat shellfish with high levels of saxitoxins usually start feeling ill within 60 minutes, according to Oregon health officials. Symptoms include numbness of the mouth and lips, vomiting, diarrhea, shortness of breath, and irregular heartbeat. There is no antidote to PSP. Treatment for severe cases may require mechanical ventilators to help with breathing. Cooking or freezing contaminated shellfish doesn't kill the toxins or make it safe to eat.

  • The cause: A large algal bloom has resulted in "unprecedented levels" of PSP toxins along Oregon's coast, said the state Department of Fish and Wildlife. While the factors that create harmful algal blooms are not well understood, certain ones—resulting from both natural processes and human activities—are believed to play a role, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "Studies show that many algal species flourish when wind and water currents are favorable," the agency says on a webpage. Some blooms stem from "sluggish water circulation, unusually high water temperatures, and extreme weather events like hurricanes, floods, and drought."
  • The duration: Oregon officials said it may take weeks, months, or even a year for toxin levels to subside, depending on the type of shellfish.
(More shellfish stories.)

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