Something fishy: How to eat seafood safely - Features - Food + Drink - The Independent

Something fishy: How to eat seafood safely

The norovirus outbreak at the Fat Duck will have left restaurant-goers more wary of eating shellfish

It's an important lunch date. You order a crisp glass of champagne renowned "for its fresh minerality" (or so says the menu), and set about tackling a mountain of oysters. A deal is struck between you and your business associate. But 24 hours later, it is your digestion that writes the ultimate cheque.

The Fat Duck suffered a near-fatal illness in March when a dodgy batch of oysters were infected by the rare norovirus. It made 529 of the renowned Bray restaurant's customers sick and closed it for near on three months (its relationships may take longer to rebuild). So where does that leave the zealous scooper and swallower of shellfish? Is it safe yet to venture back into your local palais de moules marinieres?

Well, according to Robin Hancock, the proprietor of Wright Brothers, an oyster wholesaler which supplies top restaurants including Scott's, The Ivy, Le Caprice, The Wolseley and Mark Hix's Oyster and Chop House (they also have a stall and restaurant in London's Borough Market and in 2005 took over the Duchy Oyster Farm on Cornwall's Helford River, where oysters have been grown since Roman times) the risks are overblown. In fact, he says, oysters should be enjoyed because they are full of vitamins, iron, calcium and are low in cholesterol.

"I would like to set the record straight," he says. "Food poisoning from oysters is something from the past. We sell four to five tonnes of oysters a week – that's nearly 60,000 or 2.5 million a year – and we get maybe four or five cases of food poising in that time. What happened at the Fat Duck was somewhat of a freakish occurrence." Several thousand fishermen breathe a sigh of relief.

If you are particularly worried about catching something, there are a few simple steps you can follow when buying oysters or eating out. "When you buy oysters, mussels and clams you need to make sure the shell is completely closed," says Agnar Sverrisson, the Raymond-Blanc-trained head chef at the Mayfair restaurant and champagne bar Texture. "It needs to be quite heavy and difficult to open; the harder it is to prise apart its two sides, the less likely anything bad can get in to infect it. If it is full of juice, alarm bells should be ringing. The key is also to open it and eat it straight away. After an hour or two it might get contaminated. It's very important; here we ask people to open them as they go." Hancock recommends the old adage of "checking to see if the toilets are clean" when venturing into a restaurant; general levels of hygiene can be a useful clue. There will always be a risk if you are eating raw oysters; if you are really worried,order something cooked.

At this point it might be useful to understand the background to oyster contamination (not that it is visible with the naked eye). In the UK, local authorities classify the water in which oysters grow from A to D (A being the cleanest, D being the least suitable for consumption). Oysters from A you could hypothetically remove and immediately consume without a problem. Anything below B needs to be purified (and D is totally unsuitable). For the purification process, known as depuration, the oysters are suspended in water which has been treated with ultraviolet light (this generally kills the majority of dangerous microbes). As a mature oyster will filter five litres of water an hour, the oysters are left for 42 hours; the ultraviolet-light-treated water passes through the oysters' innards and kills anything that might cause you, or them, trouble.

Unfortunately for us, and the customers at Bray, it doesn't apply to all potential nasties. "European legislation requires local health authorities to test for E.coli and salmonella but not viruses," explains Hancock. Viruses are often found within the flesh of the animal and are never excreted; this makes the depuration process less effective. "Norovirus is a disease spread when people defecate. It is possible, if the oyster grew in an area where there is an archaic sewage system, that if there is a lot of rainfall the sewage might pass into the areas where shellfish are growing." There will always be a risk of infection, though Hancock calls Bray "a one off" incident. While the press has criticised the restaurant's practices of not sending ill employees home, it could have done nothing to stop the arrival of infected oysters.

Thankfully, if you're that worried about eating raw, there are some tasty alternatives. "What we do is our signature dish of moules mariniere; steam the oyster for a few minutes in butter, wine, shallots, a bit of parsley, you can't go wrong, though I will always recommend eating them raw on the half shell," concludes Hancock. "We should not make too much of the viral thing; it is exceptionally rare. Again, I think the staff at the Fat Duck – where they are obsessed with a clinical, almost scientific preparation of food and are more than aware of these processes – were incredibly unlucky."

Tips for home cooks: Shellfish safety

Choosing Buy seafood from a reputable source and make sure it reaches your fridge quickly.

Chilling Keep in the fridge and be sure to keep covered or wrapped. Don't store shellfish in water.

Freezing For up to three months. Thaw slowly in the fridge or in the microwave.

Cooking Discard oysters, mussels and clams if shells are damaged or not closed.

Suggested Topics
John Travolta is a qualified airline captain and employed the pilot with his company, Alto
people'That was the lowest I’d ever felt'
Life and Style
healthIt isn’t greasy. It doesn’t smell. And moreover, it costs nothing
peopleThe report and photo dedicated to the actress’s decolletage has, unsurprisingly, provoked anger
Home body: Badger stays safe indoors
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
The programme sees four specialists creating what they believe are three perfect couples, based on scientific matchmaking. The couples will not meet until they walk down the aisle together
tvUK wedding show jilted
Arts and Entertainment
US pop diva Jennifer Lopez sang “Happy Birthday” to Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, president of Turkmenistan
musicCorporate gigs become key source of musicians' income
Arts and Entertainment
You've been framed: Henri Matisse's colourful cut-outs at Tate Modern
artWhat makes a smash-hit art show
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
filmsDaniel Craig believed to be donning skis as 007 for first time
Mikel Arteta pictured during Borussia Dortmund vs Arsenal
champions league
Yes supporters gather outside the Usher Hall, which is hosting a Night for Scotland in Edinburgh
voicesBen Judah: Is there a third option for England and Scotland that keeps everyone happy?
Arts and Entertainment
Pulp-fiction lover: Jarvis Cocker
booksJarvis Cocker on Richard Brautigan
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke and Pharell Williams in the video of the song, which has been accused of justifying rape
music...and he had 'almost no part' in writing it
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    IT Administrator - Graduate

    £18000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: ***EXCELLENT OPPORTUNITY FO...

    USA/Florida Travel Consultants £30-50k OTE Essex

    Basic of £18,000 + commission, realistic OTE of £30-£50k : Ocean Holidays: Le...

    Marketing Executive / Member Services Exec

    £20 - 26k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Marketing Executive / Member Services Ex...

    Sales Account Manager

    £15,000 - £25,000: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has arisen for ...

    Day In a Page

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week