Shellfish firm hits back in Fat Duck food row

AN ESSEX shellfish company identified as the source of contaminated oysters that caused an outbreak of food poisoning at one of the UK's most renowned restaurants is investigating how they could have become infected.

Roddy Ashworth

AN ESSEX shellfish company identified as the source of contaminated oysters that caused an outbreak of food poisoning at one of the UK's most renowned restaurants is investigating how they could have become infected.

But yesterday Jo Humm, finance manager at Colchester Oyster Fishery in East Mersea, said she did not believe Heston Blumenthal's Fat Duck restaurant could lay all of the blame for its problems at the Essex company's door.

Around 530 diners who ate at the exclusive restaurant in Bray, Berkshire, fell ill over a six week period during January and February this year.

A Health Protection Agency (HPA) report into the outbreak said it was caused by norovirus found in oysters that came from the Essex fishery.

It also identified three other outbreaks of norovirus potentially linked to the same supplier

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These, it said, were reported to Colchester Borough Council between mid-January and mid-February.

But the report also questioned the way food was handled at the Michelin-starred Fat Duck, and noted the length of time since the first customers fell ill - on January 6 - and the decision to temporarily close the restaurant on February 22.

It also noted that some razor clams at the restaurant which had come from Torbay were also found to have been contaminated with norovirus.

The report said: “Several weaknesses in procedures at the restaurant may have contributed to ongoing transmission.

“These included a delayed response to the incident, staff working when they should have been off sick, and the wrong environmental cleaning products being used.”

The restaurant, however, has rejected the criticism and claimed that the problem was purely the fault of its suppliers.

And now the Fat Duck's insurance company, AXA, has announced it will seek to recover damages from the Essex fishery.

An AXA spokesman said: “As the HPA report has identified a supplier as the source of the norovirus outbreak that affected the Fat Duck, we will be carrying out the normal process for insurance claims and making a counter-claim against the supplier.”

Yesterday Mrs Humm said: “I don't think the HPA report completely exonerates the Fat Duck.

“There were various other factors as to why the outbreak lasted as long as it did.

“We have not actually been contacted by AXA yet.”

The Colchester Oyster Fishery supplies hundreds of restaurants and wholesalers around the country with oysters, dropping off the gourmet shellfish to around 70 establishments in London every evening.

In total it sells around one ton of the oysters per day, which works out at around 10,000 of the highly-prized bivalves.

Mrs Humm added that the firm was investigating whether the infection could have been caused by a problem at a nearby sewage works in Colchester operated by Anglian Water.

The HPA report suggested that the contamination of the shellfish was probably due to sewage.

“Given the level of contamination, the size of the outbreak and the link with norovirus to human sewage, we are still investigating the possibility of a link with the sewage works,” Mrs Humm said.

However, yesterday a spokesman for Anglian Water said: “We take very seriously our responsibilities and co-operate fully with any investigation into possible pollution incidents, and this is no exception.

“No evidence has been found of a link between our treatment works in Colchester and a deterioration in the quality of shell fish being farmed at a nearby fishery.

“The treatment works is fully compliant with regulations and the adjacent bathing waters meet the European water quality guidelines.

“There are other potential sources of pollution nearby, including private boats and marinas, agricultural run-off and a large wintering bird population.”