Oyster business blames Wessex Water sewage spills for norovirus scare

A shellfish company which was forced to recall its oysters from shops due to concerns over norovirus has said sewage overflows from Wessex Water are to blame.

Dorset Oysters recalled its produce from 12 retailers over the weekend on the request of the Food Standards Agency (FSA) which said the oysters were “potentially contaminated with norovirus and if consumed may cause illness”.

Alex Reeks, who co-runs Dorset Oysters, told ENDS that the product recall was a “direct consequence” of sewage spilling into the sea. 

He said the quality of the water in Poole Harbour was “atrocious” and that Wessex Water needed to invest in better infrastructure.

Reeks added that, since the product recall, his firm had not been able to sell any more oysters.

“We have to wait, our business is still affected. We have to wait for test results. Everything needs to be investigated,” he said.

Water companies are currently allowed to make use of combined sewer overflows (CSOs) if there has been exceptionally heavy rain and only if the company in question has already treated a specified volume of water. 

But Reeks told ENDS that “whenever there was any rainfall, especially in the winter [sewage] spills out”.

“We have email alerts whenever a spill is happening and if it is after any rainfall especially in the winter they spill out. They are allowed to do that - that needs changing. And the infrastructure really needs changing too.”

Wessex Water said that it did not "pump sewage into the sea", and that "storm overflows occasionally operate during heavy rainfall events to prevent flooding and rarely cause pollution".

A spokesman for the firm said: "Cases of norovirus have been exceptionally high in the community following the easing of Covid-19 restrictions."

He said the company regularly took samples of wastewater from water recycling centre discharges and storm overflows in the Poole Harbour area, and that no concerns had been raised by public health teams.

He added: "There are many sources of microbiological contamination which can impact water quality, including urban runoff, agricultural runoff and private sewage treatment systems such as septic tanks."

But Reeks said that Wessex Water “is going to blame everyone else apart from themselves”. “It’s about time they put their hand up,” he added.

Last year, the water sector dumped raw sewage into rivers and seas at least 400,000 times for a minimum of 3.1m hours, according to figures submitted to the Environment Agency, though the actual figures are widely believed to be much higher. 

A government amendment to the Environment Act, which received royal assent this month, places a legal duty on water companies to “progressively reduce the impacts of sewage pollution from storm overflows” but critics say this does not go far enough.