Local restaurants take raw oysters off the menu

Tuesday was somewhat disappointing for Tom Ferris.

  • Aug. 19, 2015 6:00 a.m.

Tuesday was somewhat disappointing for Tom Ferris.

As the owner of Ferris’ Oyster Bar, telling his customers he isn’t serving raw west coast oysters until further notice wasn’t easy, but it’s something that had to be done due to ongoing concerns about food poisoning.

“Of course we’re disappointed, but this is a health issue,” said Ferris, adding so far his customers don’t seem shocked about the temporary halt on serving raw oysters.

“It doesn’t matter what the season is, you’re taking your chances, but there has been too many cases now. We’re just taking proactive measures.”

Earlier this week, the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority asked restaurants in the region to temporarily cook oysters harvested in B.C. before serving. Officials also said only oysters harvested outside of the province can be served.

The ban comes in response to 31 people that became sick from eating raw B.C. oysters this summer, but officials suspect there are likely more cases that haven’t been reported. On Vancouver Island, there have been 15 cases during the summer months. No stats were available specifically for Victoria.

Vibrio parahaemolyticus is a naturally occurring bacterium found in coastal waters that thrives when the weather warms. Since oysters are filter feeders, they take in the vibrio into their digestive track.

Reports of illness generally increase during the summer months. The symptoms include watery diarrhea, cramps, vomiting, and fever, and can last up to a week.

Dr. Murray Fyfe, medical health officer for Island Health, said there is no ban on restaurants selling raw oysters and shellfish in Victoria, nor is there an order to cook them.

Instead, officials have been visiting restaurants that serve raw oysters and having discussions about the risks for vibrio illnesses. Restaurants have also been provided with a health warning poster to make sure customers are aware of the dangers.

“A good portion of them (restaurants) decided they were not going to continue to sell the raw oysters. It was too much of a risk. The others have basically agreed to put the posters up and have a discussion with their customers to make sure they are aware of the risk,” said Fyfe, noting about two thirds of the cases of illness were related to restaurants and about one third were related to those who had harvested their own oysters from beaches.

“It’s a very risky practice to harvest oysters at this time off a beach. It’s fine if they are going to be cooked. There’s a lot of nice ways to enjoy oysters.”

Vibrio infections caused by eating raw oysters and shellfish are nothing new. According to Fyfe, the last big outbreak on the island was in 1997. Last year there were five cases reported.

For those who still have a craving for raw oysters, Ferris is serving ones shipped in from Prince Edward Island, along with cooked oysters. In the mean time, all he can do is wait until the temperatures cool and things get back to normal.

“Vibrio has been with us for quite some time and so has red tide. In one form or another, we always have to deal with something when the weather is warm and this has been a particularly warm summer,” he said. “Just pick a month that ends with an r and it’ll be fine.”

—Pamela Roth

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