Row over oyster warning

IF you were specifically trying to avoid food poisoning, being told not to eat raw oysters might appear a piece of obvious advice.A similar pearl of wisdom might read, "if you are specifically trying to avoid a car accident, keep away from the road.

IF you were specifically trying to avoid food poisoning, being told not to eat raw oysters might appear a piece of obvious advice.

A similar pearl of wisdom might read, "if you are specifically trying to avoid a car accident, keep away from the road."

But such a recent warning regarding shellfish – published by the Foods Standards Agency (FSA) – has infuriated fishermen from Mersea, Colchester, whose world-famous oysters have been a prized delicacy for more than 2,000 years.

They have accused the FSA of unnecessary scare mongering, which could damage public confidence in their age-old industry, when in fact their oysters are safer than ever before – and anywhere in the world.


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The Food Standards Agency yesterday attempted to justify its advice with some startlingly unimpressive statistics.

"In 2001, in the UK, there were three recorded outbreaks of food poisoning connected with raw oysters, affecting 21 people," a spokesman said sheepishly.

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"We're not trying to stamp down on oyster-eating. It is simply making information available to people worried about food poisoning," he added.

The Agency's warning is published on its website, where it advises those concerned about giving raw oysters to a lover on Valentines' Day to be aware of the food poisoning danger.

However the Government watchdog was accused of going over-the-top in its condemnation of the "Colchester Native" and its watery relations.

Mike Dawson, of West Mersea Oysters, said the firm sold 750,000 of the shellfish a year and had never had a confirmed case of food poisoning.

Oysters the company grows – eaten by the likes of Kylie Minogue and Elton John among others – go through two purification tanks and are subject to stringent environmental checks not carried out overseas.

"This purification plant has been here for ten years, and there has never been a proven complaint.

"That's 7.5 million who have eaten our oysters. When there have been reports of poisoning, it has been referred to doctors who have done specific tests, and they have shown it wasn't the oysters."

Mr Dawson explained that some people were allergic to the shellfish, in the same way some people are allergic to nuts.

But he added: "Part of the trouble is that when people have a lot of oysters they often have a lot to drink, and get carried away.

"The two don't always go well together. But if they are sick they never blame it on the drink – it's always the oysters' fault."

"The Government just seems to want to run us down," Mr Dawson complained. The FSA is just negative, negative, negative.

"At the end of the day if we poisoned anybody we would be finished – word would spread among the London restaurants like wildfire," he added.

Colchester mayor Nigel Chapman – who admits he has problems with eating raw oysters – leapt to the shellfish's defence.

"In my case I think it's more like an allergy, rather than any question of poisoning. I do know there are quite a few things I have a problem with – it's a personal thing. I don't think there's any problem with them. I am very pro-oyster"

He added he had swallowed a raw oyster at two of borough's key civic events – the Opening of the Oyster Fisheries and the Colchester Oyster Feast – without having any problems at all.

"I wouldn't have had any more though, just in case," he said.

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