Investigation of F-RNA Bacteriophage as a Tool in Re-Opening Australian Oyster Growing Areas Following Sewage Spills


Oysters contaminated with human enteric viruses from sewage are implicated in foodborne outbreaks globally. Bacteriophages have been identified as potential indicators for these viruses, but have not been used in shellfish management outside of the USA. This study aimed to determine the background levels of F-RNA phage in five Australian oyster growing areas with a history of sewage spills and closures, over an 18-month period. In addition, oysters from five growing areas impacted by adverse sewage events were investigated for F-RNA phage, Escherichia coli, norovirus (NoV) and hepatitis A virus (HAV). F-RNA phage ≤ 60 pfu/100 gm shellfish flesh were found to represent a conservative background level in the surveyed areas. Following two of the five sewage spills, elevated phage levels were observed in most sample sites less than 4 days post spill. By 7 days, most sites from all events had phage < 30 pfu/100 gm. NoV was detected in day 1 and day 6 samples from one event when all phage were ≤ 30 pfu/100 gm. NoV was also detected in a day 3 sample from another event with < 30 phage pfu/100 gm, however, multiple replicate samples had elevated phage levels. The results of this study add evidence on the potential use of F-RNA phage as a tool in early re-opening of oyster harvest areas post sewage spills. However, it also highlights the need to better understand situations where phage testing may be ineffectual, and the importance of sampling at multiple sites and over multiple time points, to effectively capture evidence of contamination.

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We acknowledge that this project (FRDC 2015/037) was supported by funding from the Fisheries Research and Development Corporation on behalf of the Australian Government. We also acknowledge the financial support of TasWater, Central Coast Council, Port Macquarie-Hastings Council, Shoalhaven Council and New South Wales Food Authority. We would like to acknowledge and thank the steering committee members for their contributions and input into the project: Anthony Zammit and Phil Baker, New South Wales Food Authority; Maree Smith, Port Macquarie-Hastings Council; Wayne Hutchinson, Oysters Australia; Joanna Waugh and Stephen Shinners, Central Coast Council; Andrew McVey, Shoalhaven City Council; David Holmes, TasWater: Kate Wilson, Tasmanian Shellfish Quality Assurance Program; Justin Goc, Barilla Bay Oysters; and Brandon Armstrong, Armstrong Oysters. We also acknowledge contributions from New South Wales Shellfish Program, Oysters Australia and Tasmanian Shellfish Quality Assurance Program and the NSW and Tasmanian oyster growers and samplers for their assistance in collecting and transporting oyster samples, in particular Brandon Armstrong, Wayne Moxham, Anthony Munn, Justin Goc, Josh Poke, James Calvert, Peter Kosmeyer and Tony Byrne. We acknowledge the technical assistance of Linda Friedrich and Navreet Malhi, SARDI Food Sciences. We also acknowledge Phil Baker, NSW Food Authority, and Ruari Colquhoun, University of Tasmania, for generation of maps.

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Correspondence to Valeria A. Torok.

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Torok, V.A., Hodgson, K.R., Jolley, J. et al. Investigation of F-RNA Bacteriophage as a Tool in Re-Opening Australian Oyster Growing Areas Following Sewage Spills. Food Environ Virol (2021).

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  • Shellfish management
  • Food safety
  • Foodborne viruses
  • Norovirus
  • Hepatitis A virus
  • Escherichia coli bacteriophage MS2