B.C. oysters are popular in fine-dining circles, with varieties like the Kusshi and Stellar Bay garnering raves for their taste and texture.
But thanks to a recall from Canada's federal food safety agency, fewer of those B.C. oysters are likely to make it to diners' plates and down their gullets – resulting in disappointment from sellers and producers who say the recall is too broad and doesn't recognize that some oysters may be safer than others.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency on Tuesday issued a recall for oysters harvested from B.C. coastal waters on or before Aug. 18 and intended for raw consumption, citing the risk of contamination by Vibrio parahaemolyticus. Vibrios are naturally occurring bacteria that tends to flourish as water gets warmer in summer months. Most people who get sick from the bug do so after eating raw or undercooked shellfish, especially oysters.
John Bil, a veteran oyster shucker and current co-owner of Honest Weight seafood shop and restaurant in Toronto, said Wednesday he has been purchasing more product from oyster farmers in Prince Edward Island in recent weeks. But Mr. Bil said he still intends to sell – and eat – raw B.C. oyster, saying his suppliers harvest their oysters from cooler, deeper water that provides a different environment than oysters dug up on the beach, making them safer.
"When [the Canadian Food Inspection Agency] says all B.C. oysters, it's problematic because it tars all oysters with the same brush," Mr. Bil said. "I can buy oysters from the East Coast cheaper and more easily than B.C. oysters, but I believe in B.C. oysters and I believe in those fishermen and farmers that are following the letter and spirit of the law and doing their due diligence and selling something they are confident in."
The CFIA recall followed advice from Health Canada and the B.C. Centre for Disease Control, which on July 31 warned about the risks of eating raw oyster, citing an "unprecedented" number of shellfish-related illnesses in the province this summer. Then, on Aug. 12, the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority – the regional health authority for the B.C. Lower Mainland – issued a public health warning, restricting the sale of raw oysters from B.C. in area restaurants. Other health authorities followed suit.
Shellfish-related illnesses pop up every summer. But the number this year has been higher – 51 cases to date. "We normally see about 10 reports and in July we saw well over 30," said Marsha Taylor, an epidemiologist with B.C. Centre for Disease Control. "We do see this annually, but the amount of illnesses we are seeing is higher and earlier than we usually see it."
The bacteria can cause diarrhea, cramps and fever in people who eat oysters without cooking them. Most people get well on their own, but it can take a week or more to recover.
The recall is expected to take an economic toll. Farmed oysters are Canada's second-most valuable shellfish aquaculture species, after mussels, and accounted for $27.3-million in sales in 2013, according to a federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans report. B.C. accounted for nearly half of that, at $12.4-million, followed by PEI at $7.7-million.
"It appears they [CFIA] are putting a blanket recall on everything, not taking into consideration how [oysters] are being farmed, how they're being harvested, how they're being handled," said Brian Yip, general manager of Fanny Bay Oysters on Vancouver Island.
Fanny Bay does extensive testing and only ships oysters that comply with federal standards, Mr. Yip said.
While emphasizing Fanny Bay would follow any directions from CFIA, Mr. Yip worries the recall could unneccesarily put people off B.C. oysters.
"When you have a public notice out there saying people shouldn't eat oysters, the perception that people have … is that, 'Fine, you're selling it, but it might not be safe to eat,'" Mr. Yip said. "After we do all this [recall and testing], what's going to happen at the retail level, at the customer level?"
At Salish Sea Foods in Comox, B.C., operations manager Cat Haddon spent Wednesday organizing recalls of dozens of oysters that Salish Sea Foods had shipped to customers since the beginning of the month, anticipating that much of the product would already have been eaten.
Of the oysters that do come back, those that survive will be put back into the ocean for potential harvest in coming months. Oysters can last 10 days or longer when they are properly refrigerated. Customers will get a credit.
Salish Sea Foods, which has about 20 employees, and a sister company, Pentlatch Sea Foods, with about half that number, are both owned by the K'omoks First Nation. Some Pentlatch workers will likely be laid off as a result of the recent CFIA recall, Ms. Haddon said.
"It's stressing out our suppliers – we have about four or five suppliers and this is their bread and butter, so they are depending on sales," she said. "I'm trying to make them feel better in saying that I'm going to do my best to get the oysters back up and running again."