Dianne Feinstein and other influential backers of a Point Reyes oyster farm have at times justified their support for it by contending that it's an environmentally friendly business. Feinstein and others have made this assertion in their attempt to convince the federal government to extend the oyster farm's lease at Point Reyes National Seashore, a move that would block the creation of the first marine wilderness on the West Coast. However, evidence is emerging that raises doubts about Drakes Bay Oyster Farm — specifically, whether the company has engaged in unsafe health practices that have sickened numerous Bay Area residents.
As the Express reported law week, California public health officials blamed Drakes Bay oysters for a recent outbreak of the bacterium Vibrio parahaemolyticus, which sickened at least three people. The bacteria causes violent bouts of vomiting, watery diarrhea, abdominal cramps, fever, and chills. The bad oysters prompted state officials to warn consumers not to eat oysters from Drakes Bay, and resulted in the company enacting a recall of its shucked and in-shell raw oysters.
Now, public records have emerged that link Drakes Bay oysters to widespread illness following last year's San Francisco Oysterfest at Fort Mason. Numerous festival attendees became violently ill after the event, suffering for days from vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal cramps, fever, and chills. Records obtained by Marin County environmentalists who closely monitor Drakes Bay Oyster Company show that California public health officials blamed the outbreak at the Oysterfest on the bacterium campylobacter.
Public health officials and Oysterfest attendees immediately suspected Drakes Bay was responsible for the outbreak, because the company supplied most of the oysters at the event, and because it staffed it. On Yelp, numerous commenters, who said they had become very sick after the event, directed their outrage at Drakes Bay.
"Just like everyone else I received a horrible earth shattering bacteria from Drakes," wrote Jarred B. of Oakland. "They should be sued! I missed two days of work and have been to the bathroom over 60 times in a week ... needless to say I'm very upset. Whoever runs that place needs to take a food handlers class or be fired. I can only wonder how many other people are sick that haven't posted on Yelp. Probably thousands. Shame on you Drakes!"
Although state health officials were unable to specifically blame Drakes Bay Oyster Company for last year's outbreak, public records show that the official investigation into what happened was stymied when the oyster company destroyed raw oysters that were left over from the festival. As a result, health officials were not able to test them. "DBOC destroyed all of the evidence," said Gordon Bennett, a respected West Marin environmentalist who obtained the health records through Public Records Act requests.
Records also indicate that Drakes Bay officials further hampered the state's investigation when they provided faulty information about where they had harvested the oysters. Drakes Bay officials told the health department that the oysters they sold at Oysterfest had been harvested from a section of their Drakes Estero farm in Point Reyes, known as Area 20. But other records that the company officials gave to the health department indicated that the oysters sold at Oysterfest came from Areas 5 and 15. In the end, public health officials were only able to label Drakes Bay oysters as being "highly suspect."
Officials from Drakes Bay Oyster Company, which is the largest supplier of oysters in California and is owned by politically connected rancher Kevin Lunny, were not available for comment for this story. A recording on the company's voicemail stated that the oyster farm was closed, and did not provide a date for when it would reopen.
Health Department records, meanwhile, also indicate that Drakes Bay took unnecessary risks with the public's health. Drakes Bay, for example, did not have employee hand-washing facilities at Oysterfest last year as required by law. The San Francisco Department of Public Health even told Drakes Bay staffers to "discontinue food service" until they had set up a hand-washing station.
Records also show that two days before the May 14 Oysterfest, Sonoma County Department of Health Services lab tests found that Drakes Bay oysters were contaminated with fecal coliform bacteria, which can cause serious illness. Under state law, a fecal coliform count of 43 or higher prompts a warning that the grower should refrain from harvesting, and a count higher than 107 results in "immediate closure." According to the Sonoma County test results from May 12, 2011, Drakes Bay oysters scored a 70 on one fecal coliform test and a 180 on another.
According to records, the score of 70 came from oysters that Drakes Bay officials said they had harvested from Area 17, which then was supposed to trigger a "recommended" closure of that area, along with nearby areas 15 and 20 — areas that Drakes Bay officials stated in other records that they had used for Oysterfest. Records indicate that the closure was to remain in effect until further testing showed that fecal coliform counts had returned to safe levels.
However, records indicate that Drakes Bay officials apparently decided to gamble: They went ahead and served oysters at Oysterfest that they had harvested from areas that were recommended for closure before the new tests were done. Luckily, the after-the-fact tests showed that the oysters from those areas had safe levels of fecal coliform, according to records that Bennett obtained.
But even those after-the-fact test results raise questions. The records show that the tests were conducted in Sonoma County, just 59 minutes after Drakes Bay officials said they had been harvested in Point Reyes. Bennett noted that, according to Google, it takes 1 hour and 27 minutes to make the trip from the oyster farm to the lab, which raises further doubts about Drakes Bay's record-keeping.