Oyster production areas of Eyre Peninsula’s Coffin Bay have been closed as a precautionary measure as part of an ongoing investigation into a recent rise in food poisoning cases.

Key points:

  • Coffin Bay is one of SA’s premium oyster farming regions
  • Food poisoning cases have been linked to a seaborne bacteria
  • The sale ban is expected to continue until at least next week

The Department of Primary Industries and Regions (PIRSA) has implemented the formal closure that is expected to be in place until early next week.

The closure means no oysters can leave the area, on the west coast of the peninsula in regional South Australia.

PIRSA executive director of biosecurity Nathan Rhodes said recent cases of illness linked to Vibrio parahaemolyticus — a type of seaborne bacteria that causes gastro — had been traced back to Coffin Bay.

“We have spoken to people who have experienced the symptoms associated with this infection and through those conversations between ourselves and SA Health we have worked out that … a common link between those cases has been consumption of oysters from Coffin Bay,” Mr Rhodes said.

He said the trading freeze meant no Coffin Bay oyster would be making its way to market until the sale ban was lifted.

“This is only a temporary measure until we work out what the cause may be and we hope that we will be able to open that bay for commercial sales in the not-too-distant future,” Mr Rhodes said.

A platter of oysters at an outlet on Coffin Bay.

The primary industries department, SA Health and the local oyster industry are working together to investigate.(Supplied: Emma Jeffries)

He said PIRSA was currently collaborating closely with the oyster industry and the South Australian Oyster Growers Association (SAOGA) to get on top of the outbreak, and “to try and establish the cause of these detections”.

“[We’re] making sure that those farmers are doing all the necessary things to keep oysters cool post-harvest and minimise the chances of bacteria reaching harmful levels, and to date our investigations have shown that farmers in Coffin Bay are doing all the right things,” Mr Rhodes said.

“The industry has been really supportive of our actions — they obviously don’t want their product making people unwell.”

In recent times, growers have had to face the flow-on effects of Pacific Oyster Mortality Syndrome (POMS) and also COVID-19 causing a drop in sales.

PIRSA has said that recent inspections by officers have found that food safety practices are being appropriately applied.

Oysters on a table at Coffin Bay.

Coffin Bay on Eyre Peninsula is renowned for its oyster farming.(Supplied: Emma Jeffries)

In a statement, SAOGA said it was deeply concerned about the recent cases being reported.

Executive officer Lynlee Lowe said the association was working closely with both SA Health and PIRSA on identifying the source, as well as examining unusual environmental conditions that had coincided with this outbreak.

“South Australian oyster growers take food safety seriously and operate in line with strict government food safety standards,” Ms Lowe said.

“As part of this work, we take an active role in educating freight partners, seafood processors, retailers and consumers about best safe food practice.”

SA Health is reminding vulnerable people to avoid eating uncooked oysters following the spike in cases.

Acting director of its food and controlled drugs branch, Joanne Cammans, said they were not recommended for pregnant people, people with reduced immunity and older people, because of the risk of bacterial infections.

“Vibrio is a bacteria that lives in the environment and tends to be happier living in warm marine environments, so oysters grow in those warm tidal areas and unfortunately sometimes vibrio numbers in the environment spike,” she said.

“It is obviously unpleasant but most people recover after a couple of days. However, we are just taking the opportunity to remind people who have lower immune systems not to eat raw seafood because they can be affected quite badly if the bacteria is there.”

Newlyweds concerned about falling sick on honeymoon

SA Health has said consumers need to be wary of how they transport oysters once purchased.

“We certainly ask people how they have stored their oysters, how they have transported their oysters, where they have eaten them, so there could be a range of factors involved,” Ms Cammans said.

Adelaide newlyweds Emma and Ryan Jeffries, who got married on Saturday and are in Port Lincoln for their honeymoon, did an oyster farm tasting tour yesterday in Coffin Bay.

Newlyweds Ryan and Emma Jeffries at Coffin Bay.

Newlyweds Ryan and Emma Jeffries at Coffin Bay.(Supplied: Emma Jeffries)

Ms Jeffries said while they are currently fine, they are now feeling wary.

“We did the oyster farm tasting tour and had a great time. We hadn’t really eaten oysters before so we really enjoyed learning more about how they are farmed and eating them nice and fresh from the ocean,” she said.

“They didn’t say anything to us about the virus so we had no idea.

Gastro outbreak sends Coffin Bay oyster region into trading freeze
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