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A MAN has been caught allegedly harvesting oysters from Southend’s seafront to sell in London restaurants.

The Food Standards Agency is urgently investigating the unnamed man after he was spotted filling sack after sack with the shellfish.

The move is the first time someone has been accused of gathering oysters, which can contain deadly viruses and bacteria if they are not treated properly, to make money.

However, despite a concerted campaign from councillors to raise awareness of the supposed illegal trade in shellfish, bosses at Southend Council insisted the incident was the first they had come across.

Andrew Lewis, corporate director for enterprise, tourism and the environment, said: “This individual was deemed to be collecting more oysters than could reasonably be said to be for his own personal use.

“It was a substantially larger number than we have seen in the past.”

In August, the Echo took photographs of oyster pickers on Chalkwell beach, working in an apparently organised operation.

While it is not illegal to collect oysters for personal use, any shellfish harvested from the sea which are destined for paying customers must first be subjected to a process which destroys any dangerous bacteria or viruses.

Our pictures sparked a flurry of concerns about potentially harmful oysters entering the food chain.

Council officers apprehended the man who is currently being investigated two weeks ago, following a tip-off about his suspicious behaviour.

The Echo understands they photographed him collecting sacks of oysters and tying them to a buoy in the estuary, where they were picked up by a boat and taken to shore.

It is thought the shellfish could have been headed for restaurants in London.

Under the Food Safety Act 1990, the man could be fined up to £20,000 or even jailed if he is prosecuted and subsequently found guilty.

Fisherman Richard Eves, who runs Leigh Fishermans Co-operative in old Leigh High Street, was caught with 400 untreated oysters in a fridge at his shop in September.

He was ordered to pay for the destruction of the oysters under the Food Safety Act.

Mr Lewis said: “The investigation is still at a very early stage, but the man is being investigated for possible food fraud.”