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A Definitive Season for Virginia Oysters

Posted by on Aug 8th, 2013 and filed under News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

Oysters SmallFor everything in the Chesapeake, there is a season: for geese to descend on the crest of the fall wind from Canada, for crabs and fish to range from the ocean to the Bay’s brackish tributaries as the water warms, and for the oysters, which ripen as winter gnaws the landscape in earnest. The Bay is a vast cornucopia whose seasonality has shaped our culture and our menus for generations.

At least it used to. 

With recent innovations in seafood cultivation, Chesapeake seasonal delicacies are becoming increasingly available year-round. But is there a cost to oysters on the half shell in July? Some recent cases of vibrio (a food-borne bacterium) from May-harvested Virginia oysters convey the danger of our tomatoes-in-December food culture. Unlike a Christmas strawberry whose main consequence is its pencil-eraser taste, oysters out of season have the potential to kill. Which begs the question: just because we can consume the Bay’s bounty outside of its natural season, should we?

The concept of a season-less oyster is a new one. For hundreds of years, the rule of thumb was simple: One only ate oysters in months that had an “r” in them – September to April. These were the coldest months of the year, when Chesapeake oysters were slowly fattening in their mottled, frigid beds. Once caught, the arctic air kept them fresh longer. Spawning summer oysters were thin and milky, and spoiled rapidly in the fug of the Bay’s oppressive climate. In the past, sticking to the seasons was simply common sense –  for one’s palate, health and business.

Recent aquaculture advances have encouraged a departure from the “r” month rule for the Chesapeake oyster industry. Particularly in Virginia, where regulations have supported bottom-leasing for more than 100 years, individually cultivated oyster bars represented a small-but-stable portion of Virginia’s overall oyster harvest. But that was before the introduction of the “triploid,” a lab-created sterile Eastern oyster with three chromosomes. Since 2003, triploids and their season-busting growth have created a Virginia aquaculture boom — and caused the old “r” month axiom to go by the wayside.

Triploids never spawn – for them, it is the winter growth-spurt, year-round, and they expand so rapidly their shells are chalky and crumbling. Swelling up to 3 inches in a year, triploids are already market-size while their wild counterparts measure a measly 1.5 inches. But swift growth isn’t their only benefit. Eastern oyster triploids don’t expend energy procreating, so their flesh is always voluptuous and laced with the delicate flavor specific to the Bay region. Fat, native oysters in summer – what’s not to love? A season-less oyster means consistent income for oyster farmers and briny beauties for consumers to savor at their 4th of July crab feast. Virginia’s oyster grounds are now rich with millions of this triploid white gold.

But there is a steep cost to the windfall of an oyster in summer. A virulent food-borne bacterium, Vibrio vulnificus, grows in water temperatures above 76 degrees, and vibrio-tainted oysters cause symptoms from diarrhea to death.

Anxious oyster farmers have creatively attempted to kill the bacteria through freezing, pressurization, high-salinity baths and cooking, which eliminates both vibrio and the oyster’s subtle flavor. But none of these methods are required; in fact, Virginia regulations allow private beds to harvest year-round, as long as the oysters are caught before 11 a.m. and kept cool. These permissive regulations led to a recent rash of vibrio that was traced to Virginia oysters harvested from private beds in May.

It is hot, the water is warm, and vibrio is out there, swarming in the oysters we insist upon eating out of season. It’s roulette on a half shell.

So how do we enjoy our freshly shucked oysters safely in the summertime? It’s easy. We don’t. Oysters are a cold-weather food, meant to come from water so frigid only the salt stops the ice from forming. For taste and for safety, follow the season of our Chesapeake forefathers: Only eat oysters in an “r” month. Technology and its triploids can’t improve upon the wisdom of generations of Bay oyster-men. It’s common sense that’s rewarded by a winter serving of oysters, fat as kings, seasoned by a crisp, ice-glazed Chesapeake.

Kate Livie writes for Bay Journal News Service.

2 Responses for “A Definitive Season for Virginia Oysters”

  1. Jay Styron says:

    Ms. Livie,
    I would also like to point out that the “months of R” rational had nothing to do with Vibrio. It had to do with the lack of refrigeration for over land transport during the hot times of the year and then was coupled with reproduction of the oysters during the summer months. It also hasn’t been around for “100′s” of year as you suggest. Only the past 100 or so.
    If you take a look at the midden mounds of the coastal native Americans you’ll quickly see by their size, shellfish were eaten year round for many thousands of years.
    Please stop spreading disinformation.
    Thank you
    Jay Styron
    President: NC Shellfish Growers Association
    Owner: Carolina Mariculture Co

  2. Dear Ms. Livie,

    I would like to respond to your opinion piece which appeared in the August 6, 2013, issue of the Roanoke Star.com regarding the consumption of oysters during the summer months. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion on when a food item tastes best or what they prefer to eat. While you may not prefer to eat an oyster during the non-r months, there are literally millions of consumers who crave the fresh flavor of a cultured oyster year-round. Regardless of your consumption preferences, it is always best to ensure that your information is factual before expounding upon your own opinion. Some of the comments in your article were inaccurate or misleading.

    Vibrio bacteria are naturally occurring bacteria, not associated with pollution. In your article, you referred to only one species of Vibrio, Vibrio vulnificus. V. vulnificus is a bacteria which can be found in oysters and can have serious effects on individuals, especially those who have health issues that make the consumption of any raw protein a risk. However, the bacteria involved in the recent Virginia event was not V. vulnificus, but it’s less virulent cousin, Vibrio parahaemolyticus. V. parahaemolyticus can cause gastric distress, but rarely more serious consequences. Additionally, there was not, as you implied, a “recent rash of vibrio” related illnesses, but a total of 2 individuals became sick from eating oysters presumably from Virginia.

    The shellfish industry recognizes that Vibrio can pose challenges, especially in summer, and has worked diligently with the Virginia Department of Health, Division of Shellfish Sanitation to address this issue. The regulations under which the shellfish industry operates are anything but “permissive,” as you stated, and were crafted to ensure a safe, wholesome product is harvested from Virginia waters. Shellfish growers have made significant investments in improved refrigeration and have cut the time from harvest to refrigeration in the summer months. The key to controlling illness from Vibrio lies in ensuring that everyone in the distribution channel – from the truck driver to the chef to the customer who buys them at the fish store – appreciates the importance of keeping shellfish cold to halt bacterial growth. We are confident that the shellfish we harvest are safe when they leave our hands. Unfortunately, we cannot guarantee that others in the distribution chain are as committed to maintaining our shellfish in the best of conditions.

    While no illness is acceptable, Virginia is well below the target threshold set by the Food and Drug Administration of less than one illness for every 100,000 meals served. It is important to understand that hundreds of thousands of oysters are harvested from Virginia waters each week. Each year, many millions of Virginia oysters are consumed raw without incident. We understand the challenges in providing a safe product for raw consumption; however, no food, vegetables or proteins, can be eaten raw without some level of risk. Individuals with certain health conditions, especially immuno-compromised individuals, should not eat rare meat or raw shellfish of any kind.

    Shellfish farmers are proud of our annual contribution approaching $100-million to the economy of the Commonwealth, but are equally proud of the environmental benefits accruing from our businesses. Shellfish farming is truly a “green” industry; no fertilizers, feeds, herbicides, drugs, chemicals, or antibiotics are used. Oysters clean the water, remove nitrogen, accelerate denitrification, enhance water clarity, promote eelgrass survival, and provide excellent habitat for myriad juvenile fish and crustaceans. Our crops are continually improving quality of the waters of the Commonwealth. Should you like additional information on the shellfish aquaculture industry of Virginia, please do not hesitate to contact me.

    Sincerely,
    Michael J. Oesterling, Executive Director
    Shellfish Growers of Virginia
    P.O. Box 1394
    Gloucester, VA 23061
    http://www.vashellfish.org
    mikeo@vashellfish.org
    804-815-1316

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