All foodborne illnesses are terrible as no one likes getting sick. The sad part is that they are ALL actually preventable! In most of my food safety training classes, I always ask all of my students to forget about the exam and that in real life they should always act as if everyone they are serving is a high risk person, but we can’t tell simply by looking at them … and to always act as if they – themselves are a carrier, sick, but don’t know it yet.
This brings me to the foodborne illness that personally scares me more than any of the other foodborne illnesses, Hepatitis A Virus. The source of Hepatitis A Virus as with most of the foodborne illnesses is feces and is associated most often with the foods that touch feces, shellfish and produce. Hepatitis A Virus will stop the liver from working to remove the toxins from the body. This leads to jaundice as a symptom with yellowing of the skin and eyes. Most often, someone does not know they are sick, until they wake up one day with yellow skin and eyes – to realize they need to see a doctor – to obtain a diagnosis. On average, it takes 30-50 days for the symptom of jaundice to show up, BUT many times, it can take someone months to become yellow and realize something is wrong.
To avoid Hepatitis A Virus, we have to wash the feces off our produce and we have to BUY our shellfish from an approved supplier. This means they are harvesting shellfish in safe water, not sewage water. Shellfish filter the water and actually play a very important role in the clean-up of our bays. I have read that one oyster is capable of filtering 25 gallons of water a day. As you can imagine – if the water supply is not good, we are getting a lot of unwanted contamination in them.
Once we buy our shellfish from an approved supplier, we have to do some accounting with that product in case something does go wrong. By law, all live shellfish sold, comes with a shellstock ID tag attached to the container, whether it is in a box or a netting sack. The law states that a foodservice establishment must retain the tags 90 days from the service date. The purpose of keeping these as records is so that if one of your customers calls you two months after eating shellfish in your establishment and they have been diagnosed for example with Hepatitis A, this accounting system will allow you to calmly ask them specifically what date and time did they eat at your establishment and from that info and your saved shellstock ID tags (your accounting system), you can confirm exactly what lot they came from. This allows you to then to notify the fish provider of the problem with their product and to provide the specific lot information. Being that this is your accounting system, it is crazy important to not mix batches/lots of shellfish.
Here’s the deal, I have been speaking with some of my chef buddies and they let me see their accounting side of the shellstock ID tags. After they serve the last shellfish, they remove the tag as required by law and place it in an index card holder with newest date on the top. They do not put a time or date on when the service started or ended of that lot of shellfish. I see that as a problem. When I asked one of them, “How do you know exactly which lot was served to a customer who calls in to complain that their shellfish made them sick?” They don’t. It was explained to me that they only put shell fish on their menu one day a week which helps to control knowing specifics of product served and dates. Another chef answered me, that realistically, when they run out of a bag of mussels for example; their only concern at that minute is, ”Dang, this bag is empty and my main concern is to hurry up and open the next bag so I can keep serving.” Additionally, it was explained to me that when they “clean lots of mussels, they might just lump two bags together.”
So in real life, the shellstock ID tags serve a good purpose, but it made me think how can this system be improved in real life without putting more work on the chef … especially for those establishments that do serve a lot of shellfish.
My proposed solution for the shellfish industry, is besides providing the shellstock ID tags as required by law, that they modify the tags to include a space on the label that a cook could simply use a black sharpie as they are working to add the date and time that they open the container of shellfish and another space for them to write the time and date, they serve the last product. This would give them a much more accurate accounting system so if a foodborne illness does arise as a result of shellfish served they can be more precise in their communication of a problem to the shellfish provider to inform them of the problem resulting from that exact batch/lot.