Stung by a national recall of B.C. oysters destined to be eaten raw, the province's oyster growers have agreed to a new testing regime they hope will get their products back on the market.
Oyster producers have agreed to test five times more oysters at federal processing plants than were being tested before an Aug. 18 recall, said Roberta Stevenson, executive director of the BC Shellfish Grower's Association.
Most growers support the change even though many feel a large number of the illnesses that triggered the recall could have as much or more to do with improper storage and handling of oysters than with the product they are delivering to market, she said.
"It [increased testing] came about from the recall – in order to address the perception that we are not selling a safe product, we are going to ramp up the number of animals we test, per lot of product," she said.
"We want to reassure the public and Health Canada and everybody else that we are taking this very seriously."
As part of the stepped-up testing regime, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) on Friday announced new interim guidelines for bacteria levels in B.C. oysters intended for raw consumption, saying each lot of oysters would have to meet the revised guidelines before hitting the market.
The tests will check oysters for levels of Vibrio parahaemolyticus, a bacterium found naturally in coastal waters in Canada and the United States that flourishes in warmer weather. Most people who come in contact with the bug do so by eating raw or undercooked shellfish, especially oysters. People who are infected may not get sick but others may suffer from diarrhea, vomiting and fever.
Illnesses usually resolve on their own but people can be sick for up to a week. Thorough cooking will kill the bacteria.
Oyster-related illnesses pop up every summer, but this year health officials – especially in B.C. – saw more cases, earlier in the season, than in previous years. In an update last week, the Public Health Agency of Canada said there have been 72 cases of Vibrio infections in Alberta and B.C. linked to raw shellfish, primarily oysters.
Those illnesses resulted first in advisories from B.C. health authorities not to eat raw oysters and then, on Aug. 18, in a recall by the CFIA.
While B.C. growers support more stringent testing, they would also like to see more emphasis on other parts of the oyster food chain.
Random tests by CFIA inspectors would help ensure oysters are properly handled by restaurants and retailers, Ms. Stevenson said.
"When you start to have problems with shellfish is with improper handling once the suppliers have delivered it to you," Robert Clark said on Sunday. Mr. Clark is a chef and sustainable-seafood advocate who owns The Fish Counter, a Vancouver store that specializes in products approved by Ocean Wise, a seafood conservation program run by the Vancouver Aquarium
"People tend to not take that as seriously as they should – oysters need to be kept cold."
Ned Bell, executive chef at the Four Seasons Hotel Vancouver, received a large shipment of shellfish – including some B.C. oysters intended to be served raw – the day the recall was announced.
Instead of sending the oysters back to his supplier for a refund, which would have amounted to several thousand dollars, he used them in cooked products, including oyster chowder.
"We're in it together – they give me the best shellfish I can get in the world and I want to make sure they survive, or at least thrive," Mr. Bell said.
With restrictions on West Coast oysters, Mr. Bell has turned more to suppliers from Prince Edward Island, where growers struggled with poor conditions last year.
"The good news, potentially, is the fact that oysters farmers on the East Coast are getting a bit of a bump in their business, which is helping them to recover from a bad year," Mr. Bell said.