Whether you’re an oyster aficionado or a casual consumer of these magnificent mollusks, you’ve probably heard the most prevailing “rule” about eating oysters:
“It’s only safe to eat oysters in months with an ‘R’ in them.”
Here’s the thing, though: It’s not true.
Or, to be more specific, it’s not true anymore. It’s simply antiquated advice that’s stuck around decade after decade, causing too many folks to turn away oysters (especially raw ones) from May through August.
You could just take our word for it that Alabama oysters are safe to eat all year round, but it’s not that simple, is it? We think that in order to learn why oysters are safe and delicious at all times these days, it’s pertinent to understand why they were only a cold-weather item decades ago.
Here are the three reasons for the outdated advice about “R” months, presented in three new “R” terms that should be easy to remember:
Oysters have always been an important part of Alabama’s Gulf Coast ecosystem. In fact, Alabama is historically the largest oyster processor in the U.S.
But back during the pre-refrigeration days, things weren’t as convenient. Food spoiled much more quickly, of course, and this was especially true of products like oysters that were consumed raw. It certainly didn’t help that Alabama’s coastal waters are warmer than places like the East Coast or the Pacific Northwest.
Refrigeration technology has come a long way to keep Gulf oysters nice and cool during the warmer months. In fact, oysters harvested commercially nowadays are required to be refrigerated the moment they leave the water, and they stay that way until they’re served.
Farmed oysters are on the rise here in Alabama, complete with regulated reproduction schedules. But commercial oysters were originally harvested in the wild.
That meant allowing the oysters to reproduce naturally, and wouldn’t you know it, oysters happen to spawn during the summer months when the water is at its warmest. So, in order to not interfere with this life cycle, oyster season was traditionally closed May through August.
Nowadays, many of the oysters that are farmed in warmer regions like the Gulf Coast are triploids, which are bred to be sterile. In other words, because they don’t reproduce, spawning during the summertime is no longer a concern.
We love the Crimson Tide here in Alabama, but red tide is a whole ‘nother story.
Red tide—which can be spotted by its color, ranging from rusty orange to bright pink—is the common name for algal bloom, an event during which higher concentrations of toxic algae appear in coastal waters. When this event occurs, shellfish (including oysters) may absorb these toxins, and consuming those shellfish could lead to food poisoning. And as you might’ve already guessed, this all happens during the summer months.
Before you get scared away, though, you should know a couple things. First of all, oyster harvesting is off limits in any area stricken by red tide. Secondly, advancements in food safety testing have come a long, long way, especially when it comes to seafood. And Alabama prides itself in abiding by some of the most stringent testing protocols for our product. So you can rest assured that if any toxins are present in our harvested oysters, we won’t serve them.
And there you have it. Now you know why Alabama oysters are safe to eat all year long! All you have to do is find a restaurant or seafood market in your neighborhood and eat up.