Research published yesterday by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) showed that 76 per cent of oysters tested from UK growing beds contained norovirus, the virus that closed The Fat Duck for over two weeks in early 2009.
But Hancock, co-founder of The Wright Brothers which operates a major oyster wholesale business alongside two restaurants and a pub, believes the findings have been taken out of context by a number of media outlets.
“The interpretation of the report has been very negative. We welcome the research because it will lead to a better understanding of the norovirus but it's not necessarily relevant to the oysters that end up on restaurant plates. The oysters tested were not subject to any form or processing, specifically depuration and purification which all oysters in the UK have to go through for a minimum of 42 hours,” he said.
The FSA said itself that it was difficult to assess the potential health impact of the findings, primarily because its research techniques are not able to differentiate between infectious and non-infectious norovirus material within the oysters. As such, a safe limit for norovirus has not yet been established but the research will contribute to a European Food Safety Authority review of norovirus levels in oysters, which will then advise the European Commission on setting a specific legal safe level for norovirus in oysters placed on sale in the EU.
“Like any unpasteurised or raw food there’s always a very tiny risk involved,” added Hancock. “The FSA reported 65 oyster-related norovirus outbreaks last year but it’s important to put that figure in context as there were between 600,000 and 1m total outbreaks. One of the researchers I spoke to said you’re a hundred times to pick up the norovirus on the tube than you have eating oysters.”
The FSA has not changed its stance in light of the findings and continues to advise older people, pregnant women, very young children and people who are unwell to avoid eating raw or lightly cooked shellfish to reduce the risk of food poisoning.