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Oysters off menu as toxin fears bloom

AUSTRALIA - Fears of food poisoning after last month's heavy rain have forced most of the state's oyster farms to be closed.Up to 90 per cent of oyster farms were shut during June, and 63 per cent are still closed.

Rained out ... oyster farmer Bob Drake at Botany Bay. He is still operating but many farms were closed because of heavy rain.

The NSW Food Authority issued the orders because of fears that rain may have washed pesticides, sewage, manure, hepatitis A - and even arsenic - into the water.

"When you get big storms you get environmental run-off … All that goes into the water, and the oysters filter all that," the authority's acting chief scientist, Peter Sutherland, said yesterday.

"If you fed that oyster to someone, you might get a case of food poisoning and could get very sick."

Farms in the Hawkesbury, Camden Haven, Pambula and elsewhere have been closed, sparking a scramble for the remaining shellfish.

The authority, working with the oyster industry, shuts farms after triggers such as the amount of rainfall or the salinity levels, but it was not able to say when the farms would reopen.

"They only reopen after the rainfall stops and the salinity gets back up to normal levels, and we do tests to make sure there are no bacteria like E. coli in there as well," Mr Sutherland said. "There's a bit of a dearth of shellfish product on the market at the moment."

The chairman of the Shellfish Industry Council of Australia, Bruce Zippel, called on the State Government to put more money towards the testing required before a farm can reopen. The State Government pays for $685,000 of the estimated $3 million worth of testing that occurs after closures.

The chairman of the oyster committee of the NSW Farmer's Association, Mark Bulley, said many of the closures were precautionary. "This whole program is based around the fact it gives the industry the ability to prove the product it sends to the market is safe," he said.

Source: Sydney Morning Herald