Scallop-lovers play Russian roulette with their lives
Consumers have been warned about the dangers of eating untested shellfish, but few pay heed as they are drawn to the cheap prices.In October 1987, panic spread across Prince Edward Island in eastern Canada. Over the course of several days, 109 people were hospitalised and four died from eating toxic shellfish.
More than 20 years later, poisonous scallops have returned to the headlines after police pounced on a mollusc smuggling ring in Spain's northwestern Galicia region.
Though no one in Spain is known to have died or suffered other symptoms from eating scallops sold by the group, the investigation highlights the risks some shellfish collectors, distributors and chefs - including one with a Michelin star - are willing to take for profit. Police and biologists say that they were effectively playing Russian roulette with scallop-lovers' lives.
The bullet could have come from any of the illicit molluscs that are clandestinely collected where biologists have identified high concentrations of a certain type of phytoplankton of the pseudo-nitzschia genus.
The scallops feed on the plankton, which causes them to produce high concentrations of domoic acid, a toxin that affects the human nervous system, provoking irreversible short-term memory loss and on occasion death in what has come to be known as amnesic shellfish poisoning (ASP).
"[The incident in Canada] was the first warning we had that high concentrations of the toxin can seriously affect the central nervous system," explains Beatriz Reguera, a researcher with the Spanish Oceanographic Institute.
Since then, scallop harvesting has been banned in all but one of Galicia's shellfish-rich sea inlets, even though other molluscs can still be collected.
"The way the toxin gets into the scallop is totally natural and occurs along many coasts. While other molluscs get rid of the domoic acid quickly, in scallops the process is much slower," explains Xosé Manuel Romarís, the head of Intecmar, a government body that regulates Galicia's marine industries.
Shellfish collectors, distributors and restaurateurs either fail to understand the risks, or are willing to sell customers shellfish knowing that it could cause serious health problems. One of them, say prosecutors, was Toñi Vicente, one of region's leading female chefs. Vicente, whom critics have described as the grand dame of Galician cuisine, stands accused of having illicitly purchased at least two large baskets of scallops on three occasions.
Vicente used the illicit harvest in dishes served to customers at her restaurant in Santiago de Compostela, a frequent haunt of several Galician politicians, including the region's former premier and Franco-era minister, Manuel Fraga.
Two other Galician chefs were also arrested, along with four shellfish collectors and sellers who could face up to four years in prison for violating public health laws.
"I can't understand why a famous restaurateur would do such a thing," exclaims Benito González, the head of an association of shellfish collectors in Cambados, near Pontevedra.
For the last seven years González has taken part in the annual scallop harvest on the Ría de Arousa, the only inlet where it is legal to collect the mollusk.
During the November to February harvest, the collectors and their catch are "painstakingly controlled," González notes, with all of the scallops being sent to Vieiras de Galicia, the only company authorised to process them. There they are washed and their digestive organs, which contain the highest concentrations of domoic acid, are removed.
A simple wash and clean in a restaurant kitchen fails to reduce domoic acid concentrations to safe levels, experts stress.
"It's not that simple. We have a series of checks and we analyze each mollusk," a Vieiras de Galicia spokesperson says.
Though health authorities have consistently warned that buying untested scallops is dangerous, restaurateurs and shoppers still do. And because there is demand, there are people willing to collect them.
"The problem of scallop poaching rests with the restaurants and markets. It exists because there is demand," says Victoriano Urgorri, a marine biologist.
The demand is driven by money. Scallops can be bought from a poacher for between EUR 0.80 and EUR 1.50 apiece, while in Toñi Vicente's restaurant a dish made with the tasty mollusk goes for between EUR 21 and EUR 24.
text: El Pais / Maria Fernandez / Lorena Bustamady / Expatica 2008
photo credits: Fresco Tours, mtkopone and synaesthesia