An underground trade in shellfish is putting the health of consumers at risk with tonnes of potentially contaminated seafood feared to be entering the food chain, an investigation by The Ecologist and The Independent has revealed.
The scale of the illicit – and highly lucrative – trade has alarmed health officials and fisheries protection bodies who say they lack the resources to effectively tackle the problem.
Highly organised gangs, some believed to be operating directly on behalf of fish merchants, others run by gangmasters, were found to have targeted shellfish stocks in Sussex, Hampshire, Dorset, Merseyside, Lancashire, Cumbria and Teeside, amongst other areas, in recent years. Parts of north Wales and Scotland have also been affected.
The gangs target known shellfish beds at day or night, depending on the tides. Many arrive in transit vans or 4×4 vehicles and, using spades – or in some cases small boats fitted with dredging equipment – extract the lucrative molluscs before transferring them to chill boxes.
From there, the shellfish are delivered to waiting merchants, or are offered for sale speculatively to traders, to restaurants or even via the internet. Some of the shellfish end up in markets for sale to the public, but most is thought to pass through processors or wholesalers who in turn sell to restaurants, pubs or other caterers, or export it abroad.
Legitimately gathered shellfish are subject to strict purification treatments to ensure they are fit for human consumption, but fish taken from prohibited or unclassified sources, or sold before being properly treated, put the public at risk of serious illnesses caused by the E.coli, novovirus or salmonella bugs, which can all be found in contaminated molluscs.
Strict documentation procedures are supposed to ensure traceability of any consignment of shellfish moved or sold on a commercial basis, with each batch accompanied by appropriate paperwork. But the investigation uncovered that in the event of a major health scare – such as large year’s deadly E.coli outbreak – officials would be unable to verify the origin of some shellfish because of the illegal trade, undermining efforts to pinpoint the source of contaminated produce.