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Poison Discovered in Pink Scallops

August 3, 1989

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) _ Pink scallops contaminated with a potentially deadly, natural poison were shipped to restaurants because of the time it took to process tests on the shellfish, officials said Wednesday.

Shellfish tested contained more than five times the level of the poison permitted by state regulations, said state health department spokesman Scott Lewis.

All but 7 pounds of the 75 pounds of scallops in the shipment from Washington state had been accounted for by late Wednesday, according to state health officials.

Officials were trying to determine whether diners had eaten any of the scallops, said Ken August, another health department spokesman. August said there had been no reports of poisonings, and noted that the poison is relatively fast-acting.

The distributor, Marinelli’s Seafood Co., recovered 35 pounds of the shipment, and advised four San Francisco-area restaurants that received a total of 25 pounds to destroy the scallops, said Marinelli’s general manager Mike Mitchell.

An additional 15 pounds were sent to a New York restaurateur, who also was told to destroy the shellfish, Mitchell said.

Another 75-pound shipment of scallops gathered from the same area but at a different time was shipped to Los Angeles, but was found to be uncontaminated, health officials said.

All commercial shellfishing in northern Puget Sound was suspended until Washington state can analyze the situation, said Jack Lilja, shellfish program manager for that state’s health department.

The pink scallop is a gourmet item typically sold only to restaurants, although some markets occasionally carry it, Lewis said.

Health investigators identified the poison as saxitoxin, a natural substance that does not harm shellfish but causes paralysis and sometimes death in humans.

The shipment from Rock Point Oysters Inc. of Bow, Wash., arrived and was tested at San Francisco International Airport on Monday.

Washington health inspectors routinely test scallops every two weeks, but ″apparently this particular lot slipped through,″ said Lilja.

It takes 24 hours to process the California tests, and the scallops were transferred to Marinelli’s pending the results, Lewis said. By the time the contamination was reported late Tuesday afternoon, they had already been shipped.

″You’re dealing with a live product,″ said Lewis. ″There are economic factors at work, too.″

Frank Nava, chief of field operations for the food and drug branch of the California health department, could not say why incoming shellfish are not held during the 24-hour processing period.

″I don’t have an answer for that, except that 99 percent of the time they’re OK, they’re great,″ Nava said. ″It works fine.″

Officials must balance public health considerations with the danger of causing ″unnecessary panic,″ he said.

California officials are reviewing their testing policies and are waiting to see if Washington authorities change their procedures, Nava said.

Saxitoxin is a potent poison that can cause paralysis and even death, according to the California health department. It is picked up by shellfish feeding on a ″red tide″ made up of microorganisms.

Cooking will not destroy the toxin and concentrations of about 1,000 micrograms per 3 1/2 -ounce serving have caused serious problems for people, according to Olga Woo, a specialist with the Poison Control Center at the University of California, San Francisco.

The sample gathered Monday contained the equivalent of about 470 micrograms per 3 1/2 ounces, Woo said.

Bill Marinelli of Marinelli’s Seafood disputed the warning that the shellfish could be deadly. The toxin levels were ″not safe, but by no means lethal,″ he said.

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