Fulton County health officials are warning against eating raw shellfish because it could be contaminated with vibrio vulnificus, a bacteria linked to the death of a woman who ate raw oysters at Spondivits Seafood & Steaks in early August.
The 52-year-old woman died Aug. 10, soon after arriving at a hospital. She ate uncooked oysters several days before her death, Fulton health officials said.
The Health Department did not identify the woman or the restaurant. But a corporate chef with Spondivits confirmed that Fulton health officials were investigating the popular south Atlanta restaurant.
Oysters and other shellfish harvested from the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico in summer months may be contaminated with the bacteria by the time they arrive at restaurants.
In this instance, it's unclear whether the restaurant's seafood handling may have worsened the oysters condition.
Fulton County health officials say they still are investigating the case.
Spondivits was closed for a day and asked to throw out all oysters.
The restaurant will not serve them again until cooler weather, said Glenn Gagne, corporate chef for Spondivits.
James Howgate, director of Fulton's division of population health, said the Health Department has prohibited the restaurant from serving any type of shellfish, raw or cooked.
The county closed the restaurant for 24 hours after inspectors found critical violations of safe food handling practices there while investigating the woman's death, Howgate said.
Gagne said the restaurant closed voluntarily, at the county's request.
The vibrio vulnificus bacteria can cause death or serious illness in people with a variety of medical conditions, including diabetes and liver disease.
Gagne said Spondivits sold 125 orders of oysters on the day the woman ate there, with no other reports of illness.
"Realize the bacteria is a Gulf bacteria," Gagne said. "It's not a kitchen-borne bacteria."
Later, Gagne said that the high heat of August had caused problems with restaurant coolers keeping food properly chilled.
"When you start hitting temperatures over 100, it's very hard to hold your temps," Gagne said. "Oysters are very hazardous. That's why we have the warning posted in the restaurant and on the menu."
Howgate said it is county policy not to release the name of the restaurant.
"Our perspective here is to help the business be safe," Howgate said. "We're not interested in hurting their business. We do the best we can and work with the restaurant community to help them stay in business."
The woman's death and a possible link to oysters have been under investigation for several weeks. Fulton health officials confirmed the link Monday after repeated requests from a reporter over a 10-day period.
Epidemiologists were trying to confirm that the woman only ate raw oysters at one place before finalizing their report, said April Majors, a spokeswoman for the Health Department.
Georgia permits the sale of raw oysters in restaurants, and requires restaurants to advise patrons that eating raw or undercooked shellfish can cause illness or death.
When the state's new foodservice code takes effect Dec. 1, that menu advisory will drop the mention of death, instead listing only serious illness as a potential risk.
Infections from the vibrio vulnificus bacteria increased 78 percent in the past decade, according to the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Georgia reported four deaths from the bacteria last year, including two women who had eaten raw oysters from the Gulf Coast.
In those cases, the state Agriculture Department issued a public health alert within two weeks of the women's deaths, urging hospitals to be on the lookout for patients with the rare bacterial infection.
The bacteria can cause serious illness in people with weakened immune systems or such conditions as alcoholism, cancer, HIV/AIDS and stomach disorders.
About half of those infections are fatal, according to the Interstate Shellfish Sanitation Commission.
The infection can be treated with antibiotics, but also may cause death in just one to two days.
Symptoms include fever, chills, nausea, diarrhea, low blood pressure and blistering skin lesions.
Copyright 2007 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution