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Officials research oyster-related illness

Seafood industry worries about long-term effect of norovirus
SHELLFISH SCARE: More than 70 cases of oyster-related illness have been reported to BC health authorities since December. Contributed photo Contributed photo

Local shellfish producers may take a financial hit if an outbreak of norovirus linked to raw oysters does not clear up soon.

BC Centre for Disease Control released a warning January 13 informing the public there had been a spike in acute gastrointestinal illness associated with the consumption of raw oysters. Since last month, over 70 cases of oyster-related illnesses have been reported to BC health authorities.

Researchers are conducting investigations and looking for points of commonality between where the shellfish was farmed and how it was processed, said Eleni Galanis, an epidemiologist at the disease control centre.

“We don’t have a smoking gun,” said Galanis. “We don’t have a clear common element.”

Galanis said oysters are filter feeders and can become contaminated with any microorganism found in ocean water or  that infects someone who handles those oysters. She added that the virus is generally transmitted through human sewage or fecal material.

Galanis said industry regulators cannot take specific action against any one particular farm or producer because they have not yet pinpointed the cause.

BC Shellfish Growers’ Association executive director Darlene Winterburn said her organization is “doing everything they can to ensure the safety of the food they are producing.”

“All oysters that are farmed and distributed through the province actually have to go through a federally regulated processing plant,” said Winterburn. “During that time they are given a tag that will enable all of the regulatory bodies to take it back to the farm, the site and the date where it was harvested.”

Despite that, oyster producers are concerned about falling sales of raw oysters since the norovirus outbreak began. If that continues too long it could lead to shut downs and layoffs.

Consumers are being asking to thoroughly cook their oysters before eating, but approximately 80 per cent of the market is for raw product. Norovirus is not found in canned oysters.

Okeover Organic Oysters co-owner Chris Roberts said he is confident once the source is identified, and action taken, oyster consumption will go back to normal.

“I don’t think we have anything to fear,” said Roberts. “It’ll just take a bit of time to clear it out.”

The norovirus link to oysters was identified after an outbreak of illness among people who attended an oyster festival in Tofino in November.

Since then, pockets of oyster-related norovirus have occurred from Vancouver Island to the Fraser Valley.

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