Hong Kong bans Irish oysters due to norovirus

Published on
January 25, 2017

Hong Kong has barred oysters from a section of Ireland’s east coast from sale in the city due to the presence of norovirus – also known as the winter vomiting bug and a common cause of viral gastroenteritis in humans – after the presence of the virus was flagged by European Union authorities.

The Centre for Food Safety (CFS), attached to Hong Kong’s Food and Environmental Hygiene Department, announced January 13 that it was barring import and sale of raw oysters produced by Dungarvan Shellfish Ltd as well as any oysters harvested in Dungarvan Bay. This comes after an alert from the Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF) of the European Commission informed the CFS that raw oysters harvested in Dungarvan were contaminated with norovirus.

“We have never experienced such a problem before,” according to Joe Harty, director of Asia marketing at Dungarvan Shellfish, which also trades as Harty Oysters. “All of our testing is carried out in INAB [Irish National Accreditation Board] approved labs here in Waterford and the Marine Institute Laboratory Galway . . . by way of a cross-check additional testing is carried out in Scotland.”

“In early January, [when] the Marine Institute test result came back with abnormality, we were totally surprised. Our first action, before any retesting, was to voluntarily recall all exported oysters in the interest of consumers. So far, no one around the world got ill from eating Harty oysters. At the same time we began the thorough investigation with SFPA [Sea Fisheries Protection Authority of Ireland] to find the cause for such abnormal results. We are working with SFPA to ensure every possibility being examined. So far, the additional test results are encouraging; however, we want to make sure our products are absolutely 100 percent safe before we resume exporting.

Harty said his company always puts food safety at a premium.

“We at Harty Oysters are committed to putting safe food on the market and are fully compliant with safety legislation and have fully implemented a stringent HACCP system. Our premises [are] audited regularly by the SFPA, with whom we are registered,” he said.

Data from RASFF showed that Dungarvan Shellfish oysters were imported to Hong Kong by several local trading firms including Athena APAC Limited, and Global Union Food Limited.

The CFS in a statement said it had informed the Irish authorities as well as seafood marketing authorities in Hong Kong of the import ban. The ban – the latest of a series of bans announced by the CFS on imported meat and seafood into Hong Kong in recent months – will be a disappointment to Irish oyster importers, which have enjoyed success in Asia, particularly with increasing demand in mainland China for high-end oysters, with many of the shipments going through Hong Kong.

Dungarvan Shellfish has previously built up a large export business to Europe before commencing shipments into Hong Kong in early 2015.

A statement from CFS pointed out that “as oysters feed by filtering a large volume of seawater, pathogens (such as norovirus), chemical contaminants or natural toxins can accumulate in them if they are grown in or harvested from contaminated water.”

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