How can we minimize vibrio risk this year?

Click to download the Pangea Shellfish Vibrio 2014 Update Information Sheet

Today marks the first day of vibrio season in Massachusetts. Effective May 19 through October 19, more aggressive control plans will be in place to help minimize the risk of vibrio illnesses due to the consumption of raw shellfish. The number of vibrio cases remain very small in comparison to other food-related illnesses like salmonella, but more people have been consuming oysters correlating to a rise in reported cases.

This increase has drawn more attention from the FDA and State regulators to mitigate the risk. If states have not closed harvesting areas for the summer season, then more aggressive vibrio plans will be in place for each state. These changes and updates could potentially affect oyster supply. Last year, Vibrio affected Northeast areas in Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts, and Virginia. Unfortunately for many of us, these area closures and recalls affected Blue Point Oyster supply.

Vibrio is a naturally occurring bacteria in our oceans and thrives in warm temperatures. Low concentrations of the bacteria are pretty harmless, hence why oysters are unaffected by the bacteria in cool waters. However, at warmer temperatures, like warm waters or warmer than required storage temperatures, vibrio will bioaccumulate in the oyster to high enough levels to cause sickness when consumed.

Updates to 2014 Vibrio Control Plans

The scope of the updated control plans spans across the complete supply chain. Most of the new regulations apply to harvesters and dealers, but a few processes will involve retail. The Massachusetts plan heavily focuses on icing and temperature to control vibrio spikes. Harvesters and growers are required to ice their product within two hours of harvest. Dealers are also required to adequately ice the oysters in their refrigerated storage facilities. Data including harvest time, icing time, and temperatures are recorded and checked by local officials. Unannounced inspections of shellfish handling practices and logbooks will occur throughout the season. For more specifics on the plan, you can visit the Massachusetts Vibrio Control Plan site here.

If an illness does occur, the Department of Public Health and the Department of Marine Fisheries will investigate. Each respective state has included rules and thresholds of what would prompt an area closure, so please visit the respective state's website. For the latest details and updates on closures, the Interstate Shellfish Sanitation Conference site is a great resource. The site includes an updated list of all closures and recalls in the US.

Let's minimize the risk together -- Do your part

Vibrio can contaminate oysters at any time up until consumption. That means even if the oysters were fine out of the water, fine at our facility, and fine upon arrival at the restaurant, the oysters can still be subject to vibrio contamination if someone mishandled it at the restaurant. Unfortunately, it's hard to pinpoint when an oyster may be contaminated, therefore, it's important that we all do our part as an industry to keep consumers safe. Here are some tips to follow:

  • Only accept the product when the temperature of shellstock is 45º F (7º C) or less.
  • Refrigerate the shellfish immediately upon receipt and maintain temperatures below 45º F (7º C). Store and hold shellfish at same cooled temperature.
  • Ensure product is properly iced to 45º F (7º C) during transport.
  • Keep shellstock tags on or with the original container until empty. All tags must be kept on file for 90 days.

Most importantly, please educate your customers, too. For retailers, that means making sure there is a consumer advisory that provides full disclosure on your menu. Oysters do not deserve a bad rap, so the more aware and prepared we are, the better. We created a one-page information sheet that you can use to educate others about the MA Vibrio Control Plan with the tips listed above. You can download it above or share this post instead.

Let's strive to make this season illness-free and allow as many people to enjoy oysters safely this year!