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Oysters are risky business

Federal and state officials have again repeated firm seasonal cautions and restaurants all around Florida and the nation have warning signs posted.

The message is clear: Eating raw oysters, like any uncooked animal protein, can be dangerous, especially for certain people: the elderly, the sick and anyone with weakened immune systems.

That said, said repeatedly and convincingly, people are eating oysters, plenty of them, and not just the cast-iron Nibbler; the New York Times reports a revival of oyster bars in the Northeast and around the country, and now in the depth of summer, when oyster production has traditionally been slow and when the fear of bacteria is highest.

Why? Maybe living life on the half-shell is just one more retro thrill, like diving into a big steak or lighting up a stogie, yielding to forbidden pleasures after fretful decades of health warnings.

I hope not and think my hope is reasonable _ and so do most of my fellow oyster eaters. They and the purveyors I've talked to know who is at risk and take extra care to ensure that oysters are fresh, cold and from safe and certified beds.

"We're real particular," said Jane Theriault, who manages the Boston Cooker in Tampa. They get oysters from trusted suppliers, each bag tagged with the location of the bed they came from; they keep the tags for 90 days. And of course, the signs are posted.

Other restaurateurs who sell fresh oysters have to follow similar precautions, whether to prevent illness or lawsuits. Some others, like the Stouffer Renaissance Vinoy Resort, find the safest route simply not to put them on the menu.

And today, the fishing industry and technology make it possible to deliver a world of oysters anywhere in the country, whether they come from Texas or Louisiana or even the wintry Southern Hemisphere.

After that, the decision belongs to diners. There are plenty of people who wouldn't touch anything as slimy as an oyster on aesthetic and gustatory principle. Those who shouldn't come close for health reasons will have to have their oysters steamed, fried, or Rockefellered. That's clearly the safest course.

Lemme repeat. Raw oysters are not for people with liver disease, diabetes, stomach problems including surgery and low stomach acid, cancer, HIV infection and other immunity problems, longtime steroid use for asthma and arthritis, hemochromatosis (an iron disorder) and generally the elderly and people who regularly drink alcohol and may be at risk for liver disease. Any questions, call the U.S. Food and Drug Administration seafood hotline (800) FDA-4010.

The rest of us do enjoy 'em raw, for the sheer pleasure of their cold, moist taste. Granted, the Nibbler is constituted to handle fresh mayonnaise, steak tartare, sushi and old-fashioned Key lime pie and Caesar salad, all of which can be risky for many people. But then I've eaten street food around the world _ and America's interstates.

But I ate them for taste, not a daredevil kick. If you want to spice your meal with danger, get a killer hot sauce.