Fury as tests show oysters did not cause death

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The alleged "killer oysters" of Arcachon were cleared of one unexplained death yesterday, but the cause of the sudden demise of a tourist in his early sixties remains a mystery.

Oyster farmers in Arcachon bay in south-west France - forbidden to sell their shell-fish for health reasons for the third time in a year - are furious at what they see as the over-hasty reaction of the French government to two unexplained deaths of tourists last week.

The Agriculture and Fisheries Minister, Dominique Bussereau, announced yesterday that the death of one of the victims - a 77-year-old woman - had now been definitely attributed to another cause. The death of a healthy and fit 61-year-old man, a couple of days after eating local oysters, was still being investigated.

Marc Druart, president of the regional shellfish producers' association, said: "We are the victims of a miscarriage of justice. There never were killer oysters in the Bay of Arcachon.

"Once the second death is explained - and I am sure the result will be the same - someone is going to have to rehabilitate our public image. That's going to be the hardest part."

Senior government officials defended their decision to announce last Wednesday that two sudden deaths in Arcachon hospital might be connected to an unexplained, high level of toxins in the celebrated oyster beds to the west of Bordeaux. France's highest public health official, Didier Houssin, said that it was "elementary" that the public should be informed of any possible serious health threat.

"We have been confronted for some time by an unknown agent (in the water of the bay) whose possible risk to human health is unknown," M. Houssin said.

Sales of most oysters from the bay have been suspended since 31 August - four days before the first of the suspect deaths. For the third time since the summer of last year, a controversial test, which involves injecting the concentrated gastric fluid of local oysters into mice, suggested that the shellfish might be dangerous to humans.

Other tests have found no identifiable source of contamination but marine biologists fear that the oysters may have been eating an unknown form of toxic micro-algae. There has been a surge in known and unknown forms of micro-algae all over the globe in the past 30 years, possibly connected to climate change.

Many of the 350 Arcachon oyster farmers - who employ more than 1,000 - are convinced they are the victims of either a miscarriage of justice or a conspiracy.

François Deluga, Socialist mayor of Teich, a small town on the bay, said: "There was evidently an over-eagerness to announce a link between oysters and these deaths...If so, we need to know why."