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Federal Shellfish Program Poses Consumer Risks

OTTAWA - Canadian consumer health could be at risk from the inconsistencies of federal inspection policies. The regulations used to police the shellfish industry are fraught with problems there are concerns that consumers may suffer, says a newly released report.

According to The Canadian Press, an independent study ordered by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency warns that the federal program overseeing the shellfish industry is stretched to the limit. There are not enough inspectors and minimal research or investment into properly guarding against deadly toxins.

The report, written by consultants at Stratos Inc, says that contaminated shellfish have the potential to enter the local markets because delivery of the (program) cannot provide complete assurance that all harvested and consumed shellfish were harvested from classified growing areas and processed through certified processing facilities.

It also examines the Canadian Shellfish Sanitation Program, the roots of which go back to 1925 when contaminated oysters led to an outbreak of typhoid fever in the United States, killing 150 people. Canadian inspection regulations were immediately toughened in response, and eventually formalized as a program in 1948.

Canada has suffered several shellfish health scares in the last two decades, including a 1987 crisis in Prince Edward Island that left three people dead after they ate mussels containing domoic acid.

More recently, there were 79 recorded incidents of norovirus poisoning in British Columbia in 2004, caused by eating toxic oysters. No one died, though there were severe cases of gastroenteritis.

And almost every year, recreational harvesters become ill with paralytic toxin poisoning.

Impossible

The Stratos report notes that with Canada's vast coastlines, it would be impossible to police all shellfish harvesting, especially in the recreational and aboriginal sectors.

But the authors observed that aboriginal peoples are demanding the program be extended to areas such as Nunavut and Northern British Columbia, as a fiduciary responsibility of the federal government. The growing aquaculture sector is also making greater demands on scarce resources.

The report also found that key laboratories are under pressure. A Halifax facility that tests for diarrhetic shellfish toxins, for example, has a turnaround time of seven days. "In some cases, this delay poses a risk that contaminated shellfish will have entered the market before test results are available."

The program also lacks research dollars to determine whether emerging biotoxins are menacing Canadian shores.

The report warns that any outbreak of shellfish poisoning can damage the entire seafood sector, now worth $5 billion annually, as happened during the domoic acid crisis of 1987 when the loss of consumer confidence sapped $2 billion out of the economy.

Access to information

The Canadian Press obtained the document under the Access to Information Act.

It says that currently three departments - Environment Canada, Fisheries and Oceans and the food inspection agency - jointly administer the $14.6-million-a-year shellfish program. It monitors the harvesting of shellfish in Atlantic Canada, Quebec and British Columbia. The primary species are clams, quahogs, geoducks, oysters, scallops and mussels with a market value of about $200 million annually. More than a quarter - or about $60 million worth - are from the aquaculture industry.

A spokeswoman for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, the lead department for the program, said that despite the problems, Canada's shellfish sector is well policed and that consumers need not be alarmed.

"It's been working well at the operational level - Canadians are safe," said Mary Ann Green, director of the fish, seafood and production division. "We have a very safe system."

The three departments have accepted the report's six recommendations, including creation of a special secretariat this spring. Stratos had noted an "absence of a cohesive management regime" to govern the program.

The government has already been working with aboriginal groups and international agencies to improve the program, and is planning a better communications strategy to warn tourists and other recreational harvesters about the dangers of shellfish toxins.

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Ellen Hardy

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