British Columbia

B.C. raw oyster ban forces local producer to lay off staff

One of B.C.'s oyster producers is being forced to lay off staff because of a new ban on serving raw oysters in Vancouver and Whistler.

Steve Pocock says he had no advanced warning from Vancouver Coastal Health

B.C. oyster producers like Steve Pocock (pictured) are scrambling to contain an outbreak of norovirus - which is driving demand for east coast oysters. (Getty Images)

One of B.C.'s oyster producers is being forced to lay off staff because of a new ban on serving raw oysters in Vancouver and Whistler, B.C..

Earlier this week, Vancouver Coastal Health imposed the new rules after 31 people reported being sick from eating raw local oysters.  

Steven Pocock, who runs Sawmill Bay Shellfish, said the health authority offered no advanced warning. 

"The first I knew about it, I was coming back from picking on the beach the other day and just got a text message from a customer saying, 'Oh, can I cancel my order for Friday? Because I just had a visit from the health authority and we're banned from selling raw oysters.'"

Forced to lay off staff

Pocock said he's built his business around the Vancouver and Whistler market, which accounts for roughly 90 per cent of his sales, and now those sales are gone.

"They're canceling them completely," said Pocock, who noted that his business is one of the few that sells directly to restaurants. 

Pocock said he will have to lay off his processing and delivery employees because there's no work for them during what is typically considered peak season. He's also put his farm staff on reduced hours.

Frustrated oyster producer

The new ban is especially frustrating because weekly independent testing of Pocock's oysters has failed to detect any evidence of vibrio, the bacterium causing the illness, he said.

"The Canadian Food Inspection Agency set down rules for the control of vibrio in raw oysters, and we meet those guidelines," he said.

"The last thing we want is for anyone to get sick. At the same time, why would not a better solution be to trace the problem and cut off the source of the problem? The source is not the whole of the B.C. oyster industry at all."

Precautionary measure

Vancouver Coastal Health spokesperson Tiffany Akins said whenever a case of vibrio is reported, environmental health officers are called in to identify where the oysters were consumed. 

"They go back and inspect the restaurants, but we haven't found any deficiencies in the handling at the restaurants," she said.

She said vibrio contaminates oysters in the water, not after harvesting.

While it is the CFIA's responsibility to regulate producers and growers, Akins said VCH issued the warning to local food establishments because of the abnormally high number of reported illnesses this time of year. 

To hear the full interview with Steve Pocock, listen to the audio labelled: Local oyster producer forced to lay off staff because of raw oyster ban.


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