They do this in several ways. Their task this day was to gather samples of the water in areas where shellfish are harvested. Once the samples of seawater are collected, they are taken back to the DSS laboratory in White Stone, Virginia. The laboratory is state certified and approved by both the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency.
The primary function of the DSS is to protect the public from any type of shellfish related illnesses caused by either bacterial or viral pathogens. The DSS office in White Stone is responsible for monitoring the waters of the Potomac River, Virginia tributaries, the Rappahannock River upstream to the Tappahannock Bridge, the Piankatank River, Gwynns Island, and the Mobjack Bay tributaries (East River, North River and Ware River).
At the lab in White Stone, Laboratory Specialists Julia C. Pruitt and Ashley C. Brizendine run a series of tests on the samples. The water is put through an MTEC filtration test during which it is passed through a membrane filter, transferred to an MTEC plate and placed into an incubator. After twenty four hours the membrane is examined to determine the number of the fecal coliform bacteria colonies on each filter. Fecal coliform bacteria come from the waste of any warm-blooded animal. It could be from horses, sheep, goats, cows, birds or humans. The magic number of fecal coliform colonies is 14. The sample we examined had two colonies, meaning the water was good and well below a contamination level that would cause those waters to be condemned. A reading of over 14 colonies could cause the area from which it was taken to be put off-limits to shellfish harvesting. Data from the previous two-and-a-half years involving some 30 inspections would be considered in the evaluation of shellfish growing areas. The White Stone lab processes 985 samples of seawater collected monthly by the personnel at the White Stone field office.
In a specific location like Jackson Creek in Middlesex County, Virginia, there are approximately eight seawater testing stations. A seawater station is actually a GPS coordinate where the seawater sample is taken and analyzed each month. The seawater sampling is carried out in good weather and bad, summer and winter. About the only thing that would interrupt the random taking of seawater samples would be a hurricane or the water being frozen over. Other factors, including the results of the DSS shoreline surveys, are reviewed in any decisions to declare any area of water off limits to shellfish harvesting. If the waters are deemed unsafe, red and black condemnation signs are posted at the shoreline to warn of the hazard.
Several condemnation signs can be seen on different parts of Jackson Creek, and mean that these areas are not safe for shellfish harvesting. It does not mean the harvesting of crabs is prohibited. The condemnation signs apply only to the harvesting of molluscan shellfish like oysters, clams, mussels and scallops. It is safe to swim in most condemned shellfish water in Virginia. The shellfish standard is much more stringent than the swimming standard. If you are concerned about a particular area, you should review the website: www.vdh.virginia.gov/shellfish or call the DSS local office at 804-435-1095.
Another part of protecting the quality and safety of local water is the DSS Shoreline Survey program. At the White Stone office, it is primarily conducted by Shoreline Survey Specialist Ms. Deborah R. Beuchelt, though the other Shellfish Specialists in the office also contribute. It is Ms. Beuchelt’s job to go door-to-door surveying every dwelling, farm or business along the shoreline to determine if there are any failing septic systems or if there are any point or non point sources of pollution. The existence, for example, of a boatyard or sewage treatment facility would require that a buffer zone be created to prevent shellfish harvesting in an area where contamination could occur under certain circumstances.
Selected seawater samples taken from local waters are also sent to other labs to be tested for the presence of algae blooms that could possibly produce toxins that might cause human illness. The DSS also tests for naturally-occurring Vibrio bacteria that are more prevalent in warm waters and are particularly dangerous for people who are immune-compromised as a result of chemotherapy or illnesses that weaken a person’s immune system. Vibrio can be contracted from seawater contacting an open wound or from eating raw oysters that are contaminated. Proper cooking of oysters will eliminate the risks of Vibrio.
Plant inspections are a large part of the work of the DSS. In this part of their work, inspectors visit shellfish and crab processing plants at least once a month. Shellfish shippers, private shellfish harvesters and aquaculture operations are inspected quarterly. The “10/10” rule requires that all oysters harvested after April 30th and until September 30th of each year must be refrigerated down to 50 degrees Fahrenheit (10 degrees Celcius) in ten hours.
The DSS mandate is to inspect, document and track the oyster from the time it is harvested, where it is harvested, who shipped it, where it was shipped, at what temperature was it maintained and where it was sold. Oysters in the processing plants must be kept at 45 degrees Fahrenheit. Hazard Analysis and Critical Control point records are required so it can be determined where the oyster came from even when it is in the container ready for sale. Every container of oysters packaged in the State of Virginia carries a code from which the history of the product can be quickly determined.
DSS plant inspections also include the random samplings of shellfish and cooked crabmeat. These samples are processed at the lab to check for any contamination that could possibly render them unsafe for human consumption.
DSS Senior Shellfish inspectors like Richard M. Thomas and William A. McCarty III, as well as Field Director Carroll J. VanLandingham and Senior Shellfish Inspector David B Geeson all take processing water samples and do plant inspections. Water is used in shellfish plants to clean equipment, process shellfish and to make ice. Processing water quality is an important part of inspections by the DSS.
The work done by the DSS field office in White Stone, headed by Field Director Carroll J. VanLandingham, is a never ending and often unheralded job. I asked VanLandingham what he likes so much about his job that it would keep him at it in the White Stone office for 39 years. VanLandingham said, “The reason I like this job is I have always loved the Northern Neck. I had a couple of opportunities after college to work in the city. City life isn’t for me. I came back to the Northern Neck in 1972 to this job. It is the kind of job I like. It doesn’t have me in the office every day all day. I am able to come in and do my office work, then I can get out into the field where I can spend a lot of time hands on. When I supervise people I try not to ask anyone to do anything that I would not do myself. I still like to get out on the boat. I love it.”
The DSS record of maintaining the quality and safety of shellfish has been incredibly good. There has not been a contaminated shellfish outbreak in Virginia for over 45 years. Occasions of poor handling have been identified and contaminated products have been kept form getting to market. Where gross negligence has been found the product may be destroyed and the violator prohibited from selling any shellfish. The relentless process of checking shellfish water, lab testing and inspection of processing plants goes on every day, generally unnoticed by the general population. One note of caution: improper handling of even the freshest shellfish could result in contamination and illness. Keep your shellfish refrigerated and make sure you are buying shellfish from approved and certified sources. Don’t hesitate to ask your supplier where the shellfish you are buying came from. You have a right to see the identification tags which must be kept at the restaurant for 90 days.
You may learn more about the efforts of the folks at the Division of Shellfish Sanitation both at White Stone and the other regional offices at www.vdh.virginia.gov/shellfish.
Be assured the next time you bite into a shellfish meal, there are a number of proud dedicated professionals whose job it is to make absolutely sure the shellfish and crab you eat are safe.