Like a lot of British Columbian shellfish lovers, Bearfoot Bistro founder André St. Jacques has been waiting weeks to get his Pacific oyster fix.
Thanks to Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH), which recently lifted a month-long ban of raw oysters harvested in B.C. after an outbreak of food poisoning, he can finally satisfy his cravings.
"We're getting our first shipment in of Sawmill Bay oysters, so I can assure you I'll be eating at least a dozen today," St. Jacques laughed.
The ban, which began Aug. 12, was linked to 60 reported cases of Vibrio parahaemolyticus in B.C. It was lifted Sept. 17 after health officials determined cooling water temperatures had significantly lowered the risk of infection.
The move cost restaurateurs and oyster harvesters across the province considerable sums, with the BC Shellfish Growers' Association (BCSGA) estimating that roughly $50,000 worth of oysters get shipped to Vancouver every day.
At the Bearfoot and its famed oyster bar, St. Jacques said sales of the beloved shellfish were down considerably, with the restaurant having to ship in oysters from the East Coast. On a typical summer day, the bistro can sell up to 600 oysters, St. Jacques estimated.
"It was a shock," he said of the ban. "It's worrisome because we talk about global warming and now we're actually seeing the results of what it can do."
Bearfoot also had to postpone its annual World Oyster Invitational to November because of the ban. Now a part of the Cornucopia Food & Wine Festival, St. Jacques said it's likely the competition that brings renowned shuckers from across the country will not be scheduled for the summer again in future years.
"Next year we will still do a garden party but we won't tie in the oyster event just because it's too risky to put ourselves in that position... where we may have to cancel it," said St. Jacques.
VCH has earned criticism from some in the industry for how they handled the outbreak, saying the ban was too broad and penalized growers who harvested oysters from deeper, cooler waters that were still safe to eat. The BCSGA, which represents about 70 per cent of shellfish growers in the province, also stood firmly behind the oysters coming from its members, saying that the problems only arose after they left the processing plant.
"There should be closer communication and better dialogue between different agencies to try and resolve the issue before it becomes an issue," said BCSGA vice president Brian Yip, who called for "more control as to what's going into the market and how the product's being traced back to better identify where the problem comes from."
And while the B.C. oyster's status with consumers has undoubtedly taken a hit after this summer, Yip believes the outbreak will ultimately lead to a better-regulated industry.
"We're not in the business of getting people sick, so whatever we can do and other agencies can do to mitigate the risk, it's something that we need to work through, but it's definitely not the end of the industry," he said. "It's more of a wake-up call."
The fifth annual Bearfoot Bistro World Oyster Invitational and Bloody Caesar Battle is set for Nov. 8 at the Whistler Conference Centre.
Visit www.bearfootbistro.com/?event=bearfoot-bistro-world-oyster-invitational for tickets.
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