Marine biotoxins became a problem in Prince Edward Island in the late 1980s, when mussels poisoned three tourists, all of whom died. A number of others became ill and were left with long-term neurological problems.

John White, policy officer with the Canadian food inspection agency that delivers the Canadian shellfish sanitation program (CSSP), says in 1987 the toxin Domoic acid came along. “This, at the time, was an unknown toxin that was causing illnesses from mussels in PEI.”

At the time of the crisis, according to White, the responsibility for food inspections was spread too wide. Questions of food contamination in an agriculture commodity went to two federal agencies, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. By the same token, a fish commodity concern went to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) while other unregulated sectors went to Health Canada with a small component of food labeling going to Industry Canada.

“More positions were created within these departments and part of that was to include marine bio toxins (as part of the food inspection program) at the time,” states White, adding that as a direct result of the poisonings, he became involved in shellfish inspections. The four departments did an amalgamation in 1997 to become the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. “In my opinion, the responsibility for food inspections was spread too wide,” says White.

There are currently 25 monitoring stations around Prince Edward Island, with 700 samples taken annually. “We have a staff of eight inspectors and an on-going agreement for the provincial government to take samples in the fall.”

In Atlantic Canada, about 250 monitoring stations take upwards of 3,600 samples per year. Students are hired in summer to do the bulk of sampling.

The policy officer points out that a shellfish-monitoring program has been around in Canada since 1925 when an outbreak of typhoid fever was linked to the consumption of shellfish. In 1948 the U.S. and Canada established a bilateral agreement to govern the inspection of shellfish crossing the borders to assure safety.

A study released last year found that an increasing number of “risk drivers” are putting pressure on the program. The report found that funds available for the program delivery have not been increasing to meet the demands of an expanding industry, and there is a need to improve the analysis and rationalize resource allocations. The report noted that inspections are still split among three federal departments. A total of six recommendations were put forth in the report, all of which would broaden the scope of the CSSP throughout Canada with an increasing focus on food safety. In addition, a proposed CSSP secretariat should develop a tracking and reporting system for costs and performance.

Fresh out of University when the 1987 poisonings occurred, White has immersed himself in all areas of shellfish inspection over the years and despite the findings of the report, he speaks highly of the CSSP. Just how much sampling is carried out depends on the time of year, White says. “It can be done weekly, or every two weeks. If we have detectables of marine toxins we increase sampling frequency to make sure we can get a specific area closed when it reaches regulatory limits set by Health Canada,” he says.

With the huge growth in mussels throughout the 80’s and 90’s in PEI, White says, “Most good growing areas for mussels are in full production.

He says the industry has probably plateaued at about 40 million pounds a year being harvested with only a million or two million pounds of quahogs and about six million pounds of oysters.

As for keeping up with the expanding shellfish industry, White says the CCSP is very comprehensive in PEI. “We are covering the majority of coastline. Obviously we can’t cover all of the coastline in Canada where we are dealing with 25,000 kilometers of coastline.”

He says he feels confident the program is being delivered well and shellfish in Atlantic Canada and across the country is safe to consume. “We do a good job and the program has been upgraded for areas in Newfoundland and Nova Scotia where there is great potential for growth. “Any areas of concern [reflected in the report] are based on future projections with growth in the industry,” says White.