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Ray Ogura, manager of Seafood City at Granville Island, says customers are still eager to buy B.C. oysters.

DARRYL DYCK/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

A Vancouver-wide ban on serving raw oysters harvested in British Columbia due to an outbreak of food poisoning is threatening the industry in a province that produces more of the shellfish than anywhere else in the country, even as the local health authority and growers disagree on what is causing the problem.

Vancouver Coastal Health issued an order this week instructing all restaurants to cook their B.C. oysters before serving them to customers, explaining that a naturally occurring bacterium called Vibrio parahaemolyticus, which is found in coastal waters, is linked to a rise in gastrointestinal illness. Other health authorities across the province, including on Vancouver Island and in the Fraser Valley, followed suit. Raw oysters harvested elsewhere are unaffected.

But the B.C. Shellfish Grower's Association, which represents about 70 per cent of shellfish growers in the province, disputed that its members had anything to do with the illnesses. Executive director Roberta Stevenson said the province's oysters are fine when they come out of the water.

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"There is a [safety] gap once [the oysters] leave the processing plant," Ms. Stevenson said. "When our oysters leave the processing plant, we have the confidence that they're safe to eat raw or cooked."

Vancouver Coastal Health says the bacterium thrives in warmer waters and reports of illness generally increase in the summer, though it's especially bad this year, with hotter-than-average weather. Ms. Stevenson agreed that the warmer weather is the culprit, but she insisted it was only a problem once oysters leave the processing plant.

"It's after it leaves our processing plants, we believe, is when the issue arises, because it's so warm out," she said. "Make no mistake, with the heat, don't take potato salad to the beach on a picnic and eat it a couple hours later."

Laurie Dawkins, director of communications for Vancouver Coastal Health, said the warmer waters have created a "breeding ground" for Vibrio parahaemolyticus.

When asked about growers' claims that the problem lay elsewhere, she said health officials must err on the side of caution.

"It's impossible to test each and every one, but it is a public-health order and public-health officers are required to be cautious," Ms. Dawkins said, adding that the restrictions will remain in place until health officials see evidence of the bacteria levels dropping.

She said East Coast oysters are considered safe because tests haven't detected any bacteria in that crop.

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Health officials say 31 cases connected to raw oysters within Vancouver Coastal Health and 15 cases on Vancouver Island have been reported so far this year, although the actual number of illnesses is expected to be much higher because not all cases are reported.

Regardless of the source of the problem, the industry is bracing for the impact.

"It creates a hardship for our farmers because they have their sales all set up in advance and all of a sudden their product is turned away," Ms. Stevenson said.of the B.C. Shellfish Grower's Association.

Canada produces an average of 10,000 tonnes of oysters annually, with B.C. responsible for nearly 60 per cent of production. Prince Edward Island produces 30 per cent of the crop, and New Brunswick and Nova Scotia yield 12 per cent nationally.

Last year, higher-than-normal oyster deaths off B.C.'s south coast – believed to be caused by ocean acidification from climate change – had producers and suppliers concerned over the future of their businesses.

It's the latest blow to an industry that's been struggling with obliterated harvests and changing ocean temperatures.

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"It was a bit of a surprise for us that Vancouver Coastal Health had taken that route," said Guy Dean, vice-president and chief sustainability officer at Albion Fisheries Ltd., one of B.C.'s biggest suppliers of fresh seafood. "We have really stringent protocols that are controlled by the Canadian federal government, and we do extensive testing on all of our oysters."

Mr. Dean said he's letting his customers who bought in the last few days to return their oysters for a credit, which "will definitely affect business."

In the meantime, business is still booming for some suppliers, such as Ray Ogura's seafood stand.

"People have been buying B.C. oysters all week," said Mr. Ogura, the manager of Seafood City at Granville Island Market. "For our store, we're very concerned about quality. If anything goes wrong, people come back and tell us."

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