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EXPLAINED: Are French oysters safe to eat again?

AFP/The Local France
AFP/The Local France - [email protected]
EXPLAINED: Are French oysters safe to eat again?
Oysters are a popular celebration dish. (Photo by Dimitar DILKOFF / AFP)

Oysters have long been a staple of celebrations in France, but health scares have meant people have been warned off buying the delicacy in recent weeks - and another was confirmed on January 4th. When will they be safe to eat again?


A norovirus contamination sparked a sales ban on oysters and health warnings in certain parts of France. So how long should people avoid oysters for and is all of France affected? This is what we know.

So, what happened?

Just before Christmas, local authorities in the Gironde region noticed a wave of gastroenteritis cases due to food poisoning.

An investigation identified norovirus – a highly contagious virus that causes vomiting and diarrhoea – was the cause. They traced the origin to oysters from the Arcachon Bay, west of Bordeaux.

The contamination was a result of flooding in wastewater treatment plants due to recent heavy rains, which pushed untreated wastewater into the ocean, where it contaminated the oysters.

Authorities banned harvesting and sale of oysters from the area, as well as from two other oyster production areas in Calvados and Manche, “until further notice”.

They also told producers to stop selling oysters they had already harvested, and urged consumers to return any they had bought.

Since then, a new ban on shellfish from Talmont-Saint-Hilaire, in Vendée, has been announced, after they were identified as the source of another norovirus outbreak on January 4th.

A decree from the Vendée prefecture banned the fishing and marketing of oysters from Talmont-Saint-Hilaire, citing a “proven epidemiological link” between cases of food poisoning and the contaminated area. The prefecture has counted four cases of poisoning, following analysis of oysters collected on December 29th.

“Symptoms observed in humans and the incubation are consistent with norovirus infection. Consumers are advised not to eat, but destroy, shellfish from the prohibited zone that may still be in their possession,” the prefecture said in a press release.

A ban which will last “until the re-establishment of a satisfactory health situation”.

Is the ban still in place?

Yes. But, crucially, all bans are geographically specific. Oysters and shellfish from other sources remain safe to eat.


Like their counterparts in Vendée, authorities in Gironde had promised they would lift the ban “as soon as the sanitary quality of the shellfish is completely satisfactory again”. They were due to meet producers on Friday, January 5th.

Local shellfish producers have warned that, "an economic crisis without precedent" was descending on the sector.

“People are panicking,” said oyster farmer Philippe Le Gal, who is also president of the National Shellfish Farming Federation. “They have stopped buying. It's a catastrophe.”

Are all French oysters affected?

No. According to Le Gal, less than 10 percent of France's overall oyster production was affected by the contamination.

However, the health scare has impacted the entire industry.

Philippe Morandeau, who runs the regional shellfish producers association in the western region of Charente-Maritime, said he had suffered a collapse in sales although his region has not been affected by any contamination.

“I was on a market in La Pallice, near La Rochelle, and my sales were down 25 to 30 percent compared with previous years,” he told AFP.


Who’s responsible for keeping oyster beds safe?

Producers point out that the contaminations are not their fault, but rather are due to insufficient waste water treatment capacity, which is the responsibility of local authorities.

And the government agrees.

“The biggest factor is … investment by local authorities in wastewater treatment," France’s junior minister for maritime affairs, Herve Berville.

"The temporary bans are not linked to the work of shellfish farmers. They are linked to viruses, not the quality of the oysters," he told regional daily Ouest France at the weekend.

While this does not make the affected oysters safe to eat, it does mean that oysters for sale in markets across France today are clear, as they would be from areas that are not affected by the ban.

Could it happen again?

History suggests that, yes, it could. "This has happened to us twice in two years. This is not just a glitch," said Olivier Laban, an oyster farmer who also runs the regional shellfish producer association in Arcachon, the main target area for the ban.

Oyster farmers feel they are victims of what they say are decades of under-investment in wastewater facilities.

Reputational damage

Beyond the devastating financial impact of the health measures and their  fallout, oyster producers also worry about the reputational damage they say will be even harder to repair.

Orders are still being cancelled, despite the fact that oysters that are not safe to eat are no longer on sale. 

Producers fear that this latest warning may scare more people off oysters altogether.

France is Europe's biggest producer of oysters as well as the continent's biggest consumer.

It is the fifth largest producer in the world, after China, South Korea, Japan and the United States.



The government has promised that it will sit down with local authorities "to accelerate investments where necessary".

The oyster industry's 375 production sites in France make it, “an essential sector for the local economy”, Berville said. “We want to protect consumers as well as reassure French people concerning unaffected sites,” he said.

The government was, he added, ready to help offset losses sustained by farmers.


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Paul Griffiths 2024/01/03 17:32
On New Year's Eve in Toulon with t'family, I had some (several) huitres fines claires, greatly enjoyed, and I'm still here. Of course, there is a concern, but it is localised. It's a great part of French life.

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