British Columbia

Still no answers as B.C. oyster norovirus outbreak continues

B.C. oyster farms have had to lay off staff as sales have all but stopped.

Outbreak seems to be contained to B.C. despite widespread oyster exports

Oyster sellers have had to lay off staff as sales have flagged. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

There are still no answers as to what caused the B.C. oyster-related norovirus outbreak that has seen hundreds fall ill since December.

Federal agencies, including the Public Health Agency of Canada, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) have so far come up empty-handed since they started looking into the issue last month.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency has tested many farms along the B.C. coast, but Pocock said that around 90 per cent have come back negative.

"This is a big puzzle," said Steven Pocock, who is the president of the Shellfish Growers Association and owner of the Sawmill Bay Shellfish Company. "Really and truly, nothing is different in this year as there has been in previous years."

The outbreak also seems to be entirely contained to British Columbia, even though some B.C. farms primarily export their oysters.

"This is another bizarre incidence," said Pocock. "We have farms which sell nearly 100 per cent of their production into the United States, for instance, and they have continued as per normal and are reporting no illnesses whatsoever."

The outbreak has not affected any other shellfish, Pocock said, because other varieties are generally cooked before being consumed.

Layoffs, reduced work at B.C. farms

Many B.C. shellfish farms have been temporarily closed by the DFO and CFIA. 

Pocock's company, along with others, voluntarily stopped shipping in January. Since then, he's had to lay off many of his workers and reduce hours for the rest.

"As you can imagine, cash flow is pretty grim at the moment," he said.

Restaurants and grocery stores that rely on shellfish sales have also taken a hit, said Pocock.

The outbreak has lasted through Valentine's Day and the Lunar New Year, which he said are both traditionally high points for oyster sales.

"It's affected lots of businesses in quite a dramatic way," he said.

The worst is over

Though the outbreak continues, Pocock is confident that the worst of it is done.

"I think it's true to say that the peak is over," he said.

Pocock met with Minister of Agriculture Norm Letnick, who he said was "very receptive to our problems."

"We're hoping that the provincial government will step up to the plate and help us find the solution to this so that it doesn't happen again."

Pocock said growers need to find out the causes behind the outbreak, mitigate them and then go about winning back the public's trust. 

"Going forward, we have to look at rebuilding our reputation, rebuilding our brand of B.C. oysters to give confidence back to the consumer," he said.

The B.C. Centre for Disease Control urges anyone who becomes ill with diarrhea and vomiting after eating shellfish to call B.C. HealthLink at 811.

With files from CBC Radio One's On the Coast