BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - According to the Louisiana Seafood website, more than two-thirds of oysters caught in the U.S. are from the Gulf Coast. One area scientist is working to make sure our favorite treats on the half shell are safe to eat year-round.
Dr. Zhi Qiang Deng has spent the last three years studying samples of oysters from Louisiana's Gulf Coast looking for beds that could be contaminated by noroviruses which cause food poisoning.
"Our objective is to better protect public health by combining our regular sampling efforts and our model prediction, said Deng.
Deng says this model, that is still in its beginning stages, is similar to weather forecasting. Monthly samples are taken from beds across the coast and tested. Based on those samples, his team predicts the chance of a norovirus outbreak in each bed.
"The norovirus outbreak normally takes a few weeks. It does not occur overnight," said Deng. "So from the onset of norovirus outbreak to the level that may make people sick, it takes about 10-14 days."
Within this time, scientists hand it to local health inspection teams near the beds to take samples and confirm or deny the prediction. Restaurants say a lot is at stake because, in the past, when an oyster bed was closed for contamination, it scared customers.
"The experience that I've had throughout the years, is that there have been scares that have gone out that have really, really again hurt the industry...hurt the state. When you hurt the industry, you hurt the state. When you hurt the state, you hurt the businesses," said Michael Pearl, dining room manager at Mike Anderson's Seafood restaurant.
Pearl says predicting the contamination could be a very be a good thing, but only if the early warning prompted additional testing before alerts are sent out to the public.
Dr. Deng says right now this model only focuses on oysters...he says they may begin to monitor other seafood in the future.