B.C. oysters are safe.
That’s the statement from Keith Reid, owner of Odyssey/Stellar Bay Shellfish in Deep Bay, one of many oyster producers on Vancouver Island, who continues to advocate for his industry despite a food recall warning last week by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency for raw oysters.
The CFIA issued the warning for oysters harvested from B.C. coastal waters on or before Aug. 18, as they may be unsafe for raw consumption due to vibrio parahaemolyticus, a toxin-producing bacteria found naturally in water, fish and shellfish.
Vibrio usually causes a mild intestinal illness; most people develop symptoms within 12 to 24 hours such as stomach cramps, nausea, vomiting and headache.
Because of the recall, producers have been unable to ship their product into the Canadian marketplace due to possible contamination.
“I think the issue goes back to the fact that the bulk of the oysters – I’d say 99.9 per cent of all the oysters that go into the marketplace from B.C. are safe. There’s the odd bad operator that works their way around the system, maybe fills the paperwork out improperly, mishandles their oysters because maybe they think it doesn’t matter, and what happens then, it only takes a few oysters,” explained Reid.
Since the recall was filed, he noted there’s a level of frustration throughout the entire industry about how the entire process evolved. There’s been a lack of communication between the various government officials and the industry, he added.
“This is something that probably could have mitigated two months ago.”
As a result of the recall, Reid added he’s had to cut back on the numbers of hours his staff work. He has about 40 employees, and about eight of the jobs are directly related to the grating and shipping of oysters.
Because it’s a naturally-occurring bacteria, vibrio can be present at high levels in coastal waters during periods of increased water temperatures.
Reid said he stores his product in large tanks on the water, and pumps deep cold water through the oysters for at least two days.
“That water is around 13C, so it’s actually below the line where vibrio tends to multiply, which is around 15C.”
The product then gets tested every Friday afternoon for the oysters he plans to ship the following Monday. The tests get sent to an independent lab in Vancouver, and results come back Sunday evening. The results determine whether the product gets shipped or not, he added.
“We’ve been doing that all this summer and we’ve shipped every week. So our product and the testing clearly shows the product is safe to eat.”
Reid said during the same period of time, his company has shipped approximately 1.5 million oysters into the American market without one reported sickness.
He’s shipped 230,000 oysters into the Lower Mainland, and of that, Odyssey/Stellar Bay Shellfish has been implicated in 16 or 19 sicknesses.
“When you’re implicated, all that means is that your product was there along with a number of other processors or growers. And since there is no way of tracking what people ate, then every tag from every bag of oysters that was in that facility essentially comes under the scrutiny of CFIA, and you have to do an illness report,” he explained.
Roberta Stevenson, executive director of the BC Shellfish Grower’s Association, calls the recall a “very precautionary” move, but warns the association is not downplaying the outbreak.
“It’s a huge hardship and economic hit to the growers,” she said. “Farmers spend a massive amount of money to test for vibrio and distributors too. Where is the weak link?”
A meeting with the association and processors was held last week, and Stevenson added a longer meeting with the CFIA is planned.
“We’re looking at the chain and hope the meeting can help us proactively problem-solve what we can do when we see the warmer water (in the ocean) … so that next year when the water warms up we’re in a much better situation.”
Reid noted he believes the industry has come a long way, but explained there is a responsibility on behalf of the industry and government to sit down and figure out how to solve the problem.
“We can’t keep doing things the way we’ve always done them, and that’s at both an industry level, and a regulatory level. There has to be an appetite for change – again both with the industry and government, so that we can work through a process and find a way to mitigate this. And it is possible, it’s just that we haven’t so far had the appetite to do it.”
The effects of the recall are far-reaching.
Chef Ronald St. Pierre of Locals Restaurant said he pulled his raw oyster option from the menu last week.
“We got a warning from VIHA (Island Health) about two weeks ago, the first warning,” said St. Pierre. “Then last Thursday, August 13, we got another warning, with an attachment they wanted us to post on the front door.”
The attachment was an advisory for customers to choose cooked oysters when making their dining options.
St. Pierre said rather than post the warning, he removed the raw oyster option from the menu.
“I had just received 15 dozen oysters that same day,” he said. “The warning is unfortunate because it kind of puts a blanket statement on the issue and I know it’s not all of the product that has been affected. The product we get from our supplier, have been tested several times to make sure they are clean and suitable for eating. But VIHA has to be cautious. I understand that.
“Of course it’s affecting us. At this time of year we get a large amount of people from outside of the country and outside of this region who come here with the expectation to be able to savour the beautiful products that we have around here. To have to tell them ‘sorry, it’s not available’ is a big disappointment to the customer.”