Nestled on plates of shaved ice, Cape Cod oysters are among Massachusetts’ best ambassadors. They bring a good name to the Bay State in cities as far away as Seattle and Kyoto — but only if they are handled properly and safe to eat.
Last year, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health recorded five serious illness caused by raw oysters from the Cape that were contaminated with Vibrio parahaemolyticus bacteria. The first two cases occurred last July at restaurants in Dennis, while the other three were caused by oysters eaten at the Wellfleet OysterFest in October. The Food and Drug Administration stepped in after the first two cases, ordering the state public-health department and Division of Marine Fisheries to implement new protective measures this year. Thankfully, since the new safety measures were put into place this summer, no new cases have been reported.
Still, some towns’ health officials and shellfishermen complain that the state hasn’t shared information about outbreaks as quickly and fully as it could. For example, Wellfleet’s health agent points out that she first heard the results of the state’s OysterFest investigation from a third party, months after the investigation was completed. Additionally, when she requested information from the Department of Public Health about the contaminated oysters in Dennis — a town 25 miles away that shares that same waters — state officials asked her to submit a request through the Freedom of Information Act.
It should go without saying that towns should not have to submit FOIA requests to learn the results of health investigations. The public-health department claims that it would take too much time and money to share findings with every town that asks for it. If that’s really so, the information should be put online automatically so that town officials can access it without taxing the department’s resources.
When it comes to the safety of the state’s shellfish — a vital industry for many towns — information should flow freely. In this case, better communication would ensure that everyone from oyster farmers on the Cape to consumers in Wellfleet and beyond would be better educated about how to decrease the risk associated with serving and eating raw shellfish.