NARRAGANSETT—A group of state, local and federal experts gathered at the University of Rhode Island’s Bay Campus last Wednesday to discuss health and food safety regarding the state’s shellfish. Organized by Rhode Island Sea Grant, the seminar was the first in a series of lectures which aims to bring greater awareness to the community about Rhode Island’s emerging economy of shellfish harvesting and aquaculture.
Martin Dowgert, regional shellfish specialist in New England for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, first outlined the national sanitation program. Established in 1982 through the Interstate Shellfish Sanitation Conference (ISSC), the aim of the national program is to improve uniformity between state shellfish sanitation programs, as well as public health.
“Shellfish feed by pumping water, about 15 liters per hour, and they do not discriminate between harmless organisms and pathogenic bacteria and viruses,” said Dowgert. “They are treated specially because [shellfish] are animals that people eat whole, and a lot of times their preparation is raw or lightly cooked.”
“There is no kill step in how they are prepared and eaten,” he added.
Members of the ISSC, which convenes yearly, include officials from federal organizations such as the Environmental Protection Agency, as well as those from individual states. Responsibilities for states include classifying growing areas for shellfish, monitoring shellfish health properly through water sampling and other means, as well as scrutinizing shellfish processors and dealers and adopt adequate regulations.
“If you are interested in changing or modifying program requirements, you have to participate in the ISSC in some way,” said Dowgert. “It is the way to get your voice heard and, if you have a strong feeling about something, you have to be there.”
John Mullen of the Rhode Island Department of Health (DOH) also spoke last Wednesday, discussing the state’s specific approaches and challenges to public health in regards to shellfish handling and consumption. The DOH serves a number of functions related to shellfishing in Rhode Island, including monitoring overall water quality in state waters.
The state currently requires any shellfish dealer to draft and implement what is called a Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point Plan, which Mullen described as ‘a systematic, science-based approach used in food production as a means to assure food safety.’
“Our main role is to certify dealers, from small to large operations, so to us tagging in harvest areas is really important,” said Mullen. “We will have mandatory dealer training in place for January 2014 and have been working with URI and ISSC, to come up with the requirements for [shellfish dealer] training.”
Mullen stressed that, although the DOH’s program for examining shellfish dealers and their operations is time consuming, the need to secure public safety is paramount.
“You will eat shellfish as it came out of the water, so how it is handled once out of the water is be critical,” said Mullen. “We investigate every aspect and want see dealers’ records for temperature. We want to see what the dealer did with it, when, and the time it takes to get into refrigeration, and then to retail, going into the restaurants and markets.”
“We spend a lot of time torturing dealers about record and papers, but traceability can limit the number of incidents,” he continued. “Keeping good records can really save you a lot.”
All of the panel speakers addressed one particular bacteria, vibrio parahaemolyticus (vibrio), which lives in the brackish waters that shellfish populations inhabit and can cause gastrointestinal illnesses among humans who ingest contaminated species.
Mullen stated that seven Rhode Islanders were infected with vibrio last year, and according to the national Center for Disease Control, for every one reported case there are 142 unreported incidents of illness due to the bacteria.
“Because so few cases are reported, it is hard for us to get new information,” said Mullen. “We get a lot of people who go into the clinic and [the doctors] say, ‘you have food positioning, drink water, go home and it will go away in a few days.’ So [the bacteria] is very underreported.”
Lori Pivarnik of Sea Grant stated, from a consumer’s perspective, that the best way to avoid illness from seafood is to eat cooked product and that there will always be an inherent risk by eating raw shellfish.
“Seafood is a source of illness when not handled correctly,” said Pivarnik. “An outbreak is considered [in Rhode Island] as two or more incidents, and among all of those outbreaks, the majority of them have to do with shellfish.”
“The biggest thing we can do to protect ourselves is to cook seafood,” she continued. “After that, we need to be cognizant of the fact that there are at risk groups that shouldn’t be easting raw shellfish, such as children and older people.”
Joseph Migliore, of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management’s Office of Water Resources, also presented information regarding shellfish management in state waters.
Sea Grant has established the seminar series to reach out to the local community and educate them on the recently drafted Shellfish Management Plan, a process which began in January.
Sea Grant has cited four specific reasons for the development of a shellfish management plan for Rhode Island, namely to ‘demonstrate the economic, environmental and cultural value of the shellfish resource and industry to the people of Rhode Island.’ The plan will also seek to propose and promote alternative strategies and decisions for science-based shellfishing in the state.
“From what I have learned of the shellfishing industry, there is a real need for clarity in the regulator process,” McCann said in January. “Management decisions need to be made based on good data, and this is an opportunity to move to respond to those issues.”
“We perceive that the shellfish industry is important not only to our economy, but to the environment and Rhode Island culture,” she added. “[A shellfish management plan] is an opportunity to codify that and demonstrate that it is an important industry.”
The next seminar, “Room Enough For Everyone? Addressing User Conflicts in Narragansett Bay and the Coastal Ponds,” will be held at the Bay Campus on May 15, 3 p.m. to 5 p.m.