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County health workers collect mussels for regular testing. Officials say most illness resulting from consuming such delicacies comes from sport-harvested shellfish. Photo courtesy San Mateo County Environmental Health Services 

Collecting clams or mussels near the beach with a bucket in hand may be an annual childhood tradition for some and part of an annual clambake by the ocean for others. But it could also be deadly, which is why the San Mateo County Environmental Health Services is working to inform the public about the dangers of harvesting and eating shellfish. 

Every two weeks, the agency sends staff out to collect mussel and phytoplankton samples for a state program that monitors the level of biotoxins. The idea is to curb the public health threat of shellfish poisoning. 

In California, there have been 582 cases of paralytic shellfish poisoning and 39 deaths since 1903, according to the Department of Health. Most of the time, these cases occur when people eat shellfish that are recreationally or sport-harvested. 

“Since they’ve put this program in place, and the annual quarantine in place, things have gotten much better,” said Gregory Smith, supervisor for water protection and land use programs at the county. “We help the state ... We’re their arms and legs. We get out there. We do the sampling of the mussels and the plankton.”

From May 1 to Oct. 31, the state issues an annual quarantine on sport-harvested mussels. The Marine Biotoxin Monitoring Program, which started 92 years ago, can detect when toxins occur and whether the quarantine should be put in place sooner. 

However, even during months that are not in the quarantine period, the California Department of Health advises people not to eat mussels. 

This doesn’t mean Coastsiders and tourists have to stop enjoying a great fish stew or seafood medley that has mussels or clams in it at a restaurant, Smith said. 

“There is a very rigorous state and local program when it comes to shellfish in restaurants,” he said. “... Those have been tested all the way down the line. Those are safe to eat.” According to the California Department of Health’s website, commercial shellfish growers must submit shellfish samples at least once a week for toxin testing.

Smith also said each mussel is tagged and can be traced back not only to the supplier but to the specific bed at that supplier. The county’s restaurant inspectors, part of Environmental Health Services, verify these tags during an evaluation.  

The county has been involved for longer than Smith has been working for the county — 21 years. In addition to collecting samples, the county also puts up signs on beaches warning people if it’s unsafe to eat shellfish.  

“We do this because it is a primary public health program,” Smith said.

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