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When Eating Fish Can Be Dangerous To Your Health

When Doug McArthur died last May, the horror and speed of his illness overwhelmed his wife of 27 years, Darlene. He ate a dozen raw oysters on Saturday and was on life support by Monday, reports CBS News correspondent Wyatt Andrews.

"He had those for dinner Saturday night and by Wednesday he was gone," recalls Darlene.

His daughter Holly watched her father suffer. "It was like something you would see on the X-Files. He said it was like burning. He could almost peel his skin off, it was hurting so bad," she said.

McArthur was poisoned by a bacterium in those oysters called Vibrio vulnificus.

It's an organism that thrives in the Gulf of Mexico in warm months, and it has killed 72 people in the last 3 years.

"The oyster industry and the FDA know these oysters are deadly," says Caroline Smith DeWaal. DeWaal is a food safety expert at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. She says the FDA, which regulates seafood safety, has given the oyster industry a pass on Vibrio.

"These deaths from Vibrio vulnificus are an accepted part of FDA's regulatory program for oysters," says DeWaal. When asked if she meant that the FDA tolerates this level of death, she says, "Yes, they are."

The FDA declined to speak with CBS News on camera but did talk to us by phone. Despite the FDA's responsibility for all seafood, it has given up the job of regulating oysters to a consortium of oyster-producing states. That group, the Interstate Shellfish Sanitation Conference, includes members of the shellfish industry.

The Conference has rejected calls to treat suspect oysters with pasteurization or pressurization (an alternative technology for preservation of foods using pressure rather than heat).

Richard Gutting is chief of the nation's largest seafood industry association. He's asked the FDA to approve irradiation to kill Vibrio in oysters. "This is our major problem area. The bulk of illness is associated with raw molluscan shellfish, and we would really like to solve this problem," says Gutting.

But critics say the basic problem isn't oysters, it's the FDA itself. Former agriculture secretary Dan Glickman points out that the United States Department of Agriculture has 7,000 inspectors for meat, while the FDA has 300 for seafood.

"They can't do it with just 300 inspectors, particularly given the increase in seafood consumption that we see in this country," warns Glickman.

As for raw oysters, the industry says Vibrio only kills those consumers with weak immune systems and that the real answer is to warn them.

Doug McArthur, who had diabetes, ate raw oysters all the time. He did not believe the warnings applied to him. He had no protection from the gruesome death hiding in the food he trusted.

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