UNTREATED oysters from Southend may be making it on to restaurant tables across the country, food health experts fear.
A nine-month investigation into the destination of shellfish harvested from Southend foreshore, funded by the Food Standards Agency, has cleared local restaurants and cafes of selling contaminated goods.
But some pickers, apparently working in groups, are shipping consignments to London and much further afield.
Elizabeth Georgeou, lead food officer, said: “A certain amount of oysters picked are going into London.
“We have an idea where they are going and we have contacted the relevant local authorities.
“Potentially, there might be patterns. We are starting to see that.
“There are different groups, several of which might be commercial, and they are not linked.
“We have tracked them quite a distance from Southend and the south east.
“Some of the groups are from south Essex. Someone has to knowwhat is produced there.
“They must have local knowledge of the mud and the tides.
“We are concerned it is commercial activity – that’s why we are investigating it.”
Environmental health officers have seized 1.6 tonnes of live shellfish, the majority of it oysters, from pickers leaving Southend’s foreshore in the past 12 months.
But the lawon harvesting shellfish is complex. It means officers’ powers to act are limited and most pickers are doing nothing wrong.
Anyone can take oysters from Southend foreshore for personal consumption because the beds are public, unlike those on the River Blackwater, for example.
However, pickers harvesting oysters for commercial purposes, such as selling them to restaurants, require a registration document from the London Port Health Authority.
Those without documentation could face a fine of up to £5,000, but the law fails to clarify what counts as personal consumption, leaving it up to a magistrate to decide.
Council officers challenge pickers landing large hauls and, faced with the prospect of persuading a magistrate their family consumes huge amounts of seafood, most give up the catch voluntarily.
Some concerned residents have reported “gangs” of pickers of East Asian heritage scouring the foreshore.
The 2004 Morecambe Bay cockling disaster, in which at least 21 Chinese illegal immigrants drowned during an incoming tide while picking cockles off the Lancashire/Cumbrian coast, may have fuelled concern for their welfare.
But half of the oysters seized have been from British Caucasian pickers and Ms Georgeou insists most of the “Chinese” pickers, many of whom are actually Vietnamese or Filipino, are individuals or family groups picking for personal consumption.
The only prosecution brought to court, which ended in an acquittal, was of a Caucasian fisherman from Leigh.
Ms Georgeou said: “Certain communities do eat oysters as part of their main diet, such as the Chinese community.
“We just need to make sure it is for personal consumption.”
Signs and environmental health officers offer pickers advice on the dangers of untreated oysters. Food Standards Agency research suggests three quarters of them contain the norovirus.
The beds west of Southend Pier have a B classification, meaning they must be sent to a purification plant, such as the Brandy Hole Oyster Company, in Hullbridge, or Maldon Oysters, before they are sold to be eaten raw.
Beds east of the pier are provisional C classification, meaning they must be relayed in beds of at least classification B for two months before then being sent for purification, making picking commercially unviable.
But if oysters are cooked, as in much Eastern cuisine, the purification process is less essential.
The council investigation aims to provide intelligence to the Food Standards Agency about what is being gathered and where it may be headed, rather than stopping people harvesting oysters from Southend.
Its work is only part of a wider study into the supply of oysters.
In fact, preventing large-scale oyster harvesting would be almost impossible, as anyone can obtain registration papers from the London Port Health Authority and could be counterproductive to learning where they all end up.
Officers ask pickers with large hauls where they are headed and record car registrations, passing the details to the Food Standards Agency and other local authorities to check if the consignments are going to restaurants.
Local authorities are responsible for enforcing legislation aimed at preventing an unfit product being placed on the market, which carries a penalty of up to £20,000.
The difficulty they face is the offence seems likely to be occurring across local authority boundaries, with untreated oysters picked in Southend being sold to restaurants elsewhere.
To stop this crime, which could be dangerous for the south Essex shellfish industry, as well as the customer, the various bodies must work together.
Martin Terry, Southend councillor responsible for public protection, said: “We have the largest cockle fishery in the UK in the borough.
“Should it get out that someone became ill after eating a Southend oyster, it could force the closure of our cockle industry, with the loss of many jobs – taking millions out of the local economy.”
The Food Standards Agency, which is co-ordinating the investigation, needs information from Southend Council to build up a complete picture of the supply chain.
But the authority’s resources are limited and the agency’s funding runs out in September.
LAW ON HAVESTING AT A GLANCE
*Anyone can legally collect oysters from Southend foreshore
*Oysters from Southend should be safe to eat if cooked well, but must be purified before being eaten live ! If pickers are harvesting oysters for commercial purposes they require a registration document from the London Port Health Authority
* Live oysters must be treated at a purification plant before being supplied to a restaurant and reputable processors require the registration document
* Selling untreated oysters to a restaurant is an offence that carries a fine of up to £20,000 ! Removing “shucked” or de-shelled oysters from Southend requires no documentation, but selling them would be an offence, so people removing of large quantities could face legal action
* Prosecuting illegal oyster picking is the responsibility of the local authority, not police ! To report anyone, call the council on 01702 215000.