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As Oyster Sales Plummet, LA Restaurants Point to Unclear Guidance From Health Officials

Eater spoke to restaurant owners and seafood distributors who found the county health department’s messaging unhelpful

Raw oysters with mignonette sauce and lemon over ice.
Raw oysters with mignonette and lemon over ice.
Matthew Kang
Mona Holmes is a reporter for Eater Los Angeles and a regular contributor to KCRW radio. She has covered restaurants, dining, and food culture since 2016. In 2022, the James Beard Foundation nominated her for a Jonathan Gold Local Voice Award.

For weeks now, Southern California health officials have been sounding the shellfish alarm and advising the public to avoid consuming raw oysters in response to a norovirus outbreak spreading across the region from San Diego to Los Angeles. On January 17, the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health issued a statement noting that “more than 150 suspected local cases of gastrointestinal illness linked to the consumption of raw oysters, likely caused by norovirus.” Officials say the infected oysters are connected to farms in the Gulf of California, Baja Peninsula, Sonora, and other locations in Mexico.

In subsequent weeks, restaurant owners like Lonely Oyster’s Dom Crisp have experienced a significant drop in oyster consumption. “I recently did an event at Chateau Marmont and served Cadillac oysters from Maine,” says Crisp. “Everyone stayed away from them. That crowd usually crushes oysters.”

Crisp isn’t worried about the oyster advisory because he sources Lonely Oyster’s seafood from the Atlantic and Pacific Northwest. However, he and other Southern California businesses are still feeling the impact, with Lonely Oyster customers asking more questions about what’s safe to eat. Despite customer concerns, Crisp continues to sell the restaurant’s namesake product. “The oyster I’m most excited about right now would be the Glacier Point Oyster out of Alaska,” he says.

The problem began in late 2023 when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration advised restaurants and food retailers to avoid oysters that were harvested on December 18, 19, and 27 by Sociedad Acuicola GolPac, a distributor that operates in Sonora, Mexico. If consumed, oysters infected with norovirus can cause diarrhea, abdominal cramps, nausea, vomiting, fever, and gastroenteritis infections; symptoms can occur quickly within a few hours or up to two days of exposure. NBC-4 reports that Los Angeles County’s Department of Health’s Dr. Lello Tesema recommends that “[people] who are immunocompromised or older adults, specifically, should be avoiding raw oysters at this time.”

San Diego and Los Angeles health departments investigated the FDA’s initial advisory and issued statements on January 11 and January 12, respectively. But restaurants like Lonely Oyster and Naked Cowboy Oysters, a distributor that provides seafood and oysters to restaurants like Providence, Salt & Pearl, and Jolly Oyster, tell Eater LA that the health department’s initial messaging confused some consumers and ultimately lowered sales.

“If you look at how this was disseminated by the FDA, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the California Department of Public Health, you’ll see that they’re quite specific about the products and distributors, dates, and locations of their harvests,” says Todd Rubenstein, CEO of Naked Cowboy Oysters. Rubenstein said that his sales dropped by more than 50 percent after the Los Angeles County health department put out its release on January 12, which stated that the problem was under investigation and that the sources of the outbreak had not yet been identified.

Culver City’s Jolly Oyster reflected Rubenstein’s sentiments in a recent Instagram post: “We are deeply disappointed with the way in which public health officials have announced the recent norovirus cases and its link to raw oysters. It is now clear that these cases were from a few specific parts of Baja, and the damaging reporting of encouraging people to stay away from all Mexican oysters is detrimental to our incredible team.”

Crisp and Rubenstein both tell Eater LA that some retailers and consumers were dissuaded from buying oysters, even after the health department’s January 17 press release, which listed the specific areas affected. “I had long-term customers of mine who called me and canceled standing orders I’ve had for 12 years,” says Rubenstein. “Musso & Frank stopped ordering oysters and said they are going to stop selling oysters. Here’s the funny thing, they never use Baja oysters, they use oysters from Prince Edward Island in Canada.”

“Out of an abundance of caution, we decided weeks ago to stop selling oysters,” Mark Echeverria, CFO and COO of Musso & Frank Grill, tells Eater in an emailed statement.

The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health provided the following statement to Eater, which affirms its guidance that eating raw oysters carries the risk of consuming bacteria or viruses that may live in the oyster.

“The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health has been investigating a norovirus outbreak linked to raw oysters from certain parts of Mexico. The FDA has identified the impacted areas on its website. At this point, we have more than 150 cases linked to this outbreak. Public Health is assisting the impacted restaurants in identifying the recalled oysters and ensuring they are removed from the food distribution chain. Additionally, we are directly communicating with food operators to emphasize the use of oysters from areas in the United States, including the Pacific Northwest. Eating raw oysters carries the risk of consuming bacteria or viruses found in the oyster.”

Looking ahead, Crisp encourages diners to engage in open conversation with restaurant staff regarding oyster origins, while Rubenstein says his business has a long list of checks and balances in place to help prevent foodborne illnesses. “I don’t support the agents who are using generalized dialogue that is alarming and counterproductive,” says Rubenstein. “This doesn’t provide a benefit to anything except that it killed our business.”

Update: January 26, 3:50 p.m. PST: The headline was updated to indicate that Los Angeles restaurants and businesses harbored concerns over the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health’s oyster advisory.

Update: January 29, 10:25 a.m. PST: This story has been updated to clarify the guidance given by the Los Angeles Department of Public Health.