State officials present new Vibrio control plan to Vineyard oystermen

Local officials and Island oystermen paid close attention to state officials as they unveiled the 2014 Vibrio control plan. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

In an effort to enhance public safety and to protect the growing oyster farming industry on the Island, a contingent of seven Massachusetts officials from numerous state agencies met with Martha’s Vineyard oyster farmers, local health agents, and shellfish constables at the Katharine Cornell Theatre in Vineyard Haven on Monday morning, to discuss the recently updated criteria for the 2014 Massachusetts Vibrio (Vp) control plan.

“We’re asking people to change the way they do business. The key to this plan is buy-in by the growers and the wholesalers,” said Julian Cyr, director of policy and regulatory affairs from the Massachusetts Department of Health (DPH).

The number of state officials, seven, equalled the number of oystermen in attendance. “I hope the number of bureaucrats here underscores Governor Patrick’s commitment to this issue,” Mr. Cyr said.

Vibrio, a bacterium sometimes found in oysters that can cause severe intestinal distress, has become an increasingly serious problem for Island oystermen. Last September, an outbreak of Vibrio illness led to a month-long closure of oyster operations in Katama Bay. It was just one of numerous closures across the state, which has seen a steady rise in Vibrio cases since 2011, when 13 cases of the disease were reported. Twenty-seven cases of Vibrio were reported in 2012, 58 in 2013. Twelve of those cases has some relationship to Katama Bay, according to state reports.

As a result of increased cases in 2013, the Food and Drug Administration mandated a new prevention plan for 2014. Creation of the new Massachusetts plan was overseen by The Massachusetts Department of Public Health (DPH) and Department of Marine Fisheries (DMF).

The 2014 Vibrio control plan will be in effect from May 19 to October 19. The new regulations address prevention, investigation, enforcement, and conditions for future closures.

“Temperature control is a cornerstone to the new plan,” Mr. Cyr said. “We were told by the growers that regulations weren’t strong enough.”

In the coming season farmers must have oysters on ice within two hours of harvest, and must have them shaded during harvest and during transport to dealers. Oystermen will also be asked to be more rigorous with record keeping, including recording the time oysters are harvested, the time they are iced, and who received their oysters.The plan also details approved sources of water for ice, the depth of the ice and the type of containers that can be used. Oysters held by dealers in refrigerated storage will also be required to be adequately iced, per state regulations, until shipment.

Mr. Cyr said representative Tim Madden and senator Dan Wolf successfully lobbied the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources (MDAR) for funding to assist farmers who need to upgrade equipment to meet the  temperature control requirements. Farmers can get up to $10,000 in aid. The first round of applications must be in by April 23, and state officials are optimistic about getting a second round of funding. Additional funding from the state has also enabled the DMF and DPH to acquire rapid testing equipment, so samples won’t have to be sent to a lab in New York, which was the case last year.

Per the mandate of the FDA, the new regulations will be more rigorously enforced by the DMF. Environmental police and local shellfish constables will be given additional training and will be making increased surprise inspections throughout the season. State officials are attempting to make changes that will enable action against offenders to be taken more quickly. “This year, the DMF will be seeking to immediately suspend the permit of any harvester who commits a critical violation of the Vp plan” Dan McKiernan, DMF deputy director said. Under current regulations, permits are only suspended after a hearing, which can be a lengthy process.

Surprise inspections will also be increased at the wholesale and retail level. “There’s no shellfish dealer in Massachusetts who doesn’t know there’s a Vibrio plan,” Michael J. Moore, director of DPH Food Protection Program, said.

“We’re trying to help local agents to go beyond what the health code requires,” Eric Hickey, Massachusetts Vibrio plan coordinator said.”We’re doing a comprehensive outreach at the retail level.” To improve monitoring and enforcement at the retail level the Island, a meeting will be held in Oak Bluffs on May 13 for all Island health agents. “This is exactly the kind of cooperation we need,” Mr. Hickey said.

This January, at the Interstate Shellfish Sanitation Conference, a new three-tiered closure model was created and adopted by most states, including Massachusetts. The goal of the new guidelines is to prevent unnecessary recalls and lengthy area closures when risk factors are no longer present. Closure durations will be based on number of confirmed illness within a 30-day period. Tier 1, two to four illnesses, not on the same day, may result in seven-day closure. Tier 2, more than four reported illnesses but less than 10, and less than four illnesses on the same day, require a 14-day closure but no product recall. Tier 3, more than 10 illnesses in one area, and more than four in the same day, mandate a 21-day closure, voluntary recall, and consumer advisory.

Moving forward, the DPH and DMF will meet with growers and grower/dealers across the state to help them comply with the 2014 Vibrio plan regulations. A meeting for Island farmers will be held at the Katherine Cornell Theatre in Vineyard Haven on April 29, at 12 noon.