The objective of this study is to compare different microbiological criteria based on the control of shellfish-growing waters and shellfish flesh, to assess the microbiological quality of the shellfish harvested in a marine zone affected by discharges of a moderately polluted river.

Two species of shellfish grown in Mediterranean countries, cockles (Cardium edule) and striped venus (Chamelea gallina) were chosen to carry out this study. A total of 55 samples of diellfish and sea water were collected over the four seasons of the year.

According to the results obtained, the US, EEC and Spanish criteria, based on the level of faecal coliforms in shellfish flesh, guaranteed appropriately their safety for human consumption, but among the criteria based on the level of Escherichia coli, only the Australian criterion has been shown to be totally safe, this microorganism being the best indicator of the presence of Vibrio parahaemolyticus and Salmonella.

For the criteria based on the analysis of indicators in seawater, the indicators which relate to the age of faecal pollution, such as spores of clostridium sulfite reducer and faecal streptococci are the best indexes of the presence of pathogens in shellfish. Furthermore, criteria that establish the percentage of water samples that fulfill the microbiological level specified, or log-normal distributions of indicators such as total coliforms, faecal coliforms and E. coli, are better than mean counts.

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