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Stay Cool: How Bay Area Seafood Vendors Can Allay Customer Fears About Buying Oysters in the Summer

pacific oysters

When I think of oysters I always remember my first trip to Hog Island Oyster Co. in the tiny Tomales Bay town of Marshall, California. The spectacular view of the bay, the warm sun and the fresh, cold oysters we shucked open one after the other made for a memorable day, and it’s why I equate summer with briny oysters and a big group of friends.

But as a seafood industry expert, I know hot weather also makes some customers worried about the safety of their seafood. A little customer education will go a long way toward allaying their concerns, but that doesn’t mean seafood vendors have nothing to worry about during the lazy days of summer.

Keeping Shellfish Cool

Proper storage of shellfish is always important, but even more so when it’s hot out. 39 degrees is the magic number to keep shellfish fresh. Storing oysters (or any other shellfish, like mussels or clams) in water or in air-tight containers will kill them. Instead, keep them and your customers happy by storing them in a shallow pan covered with a damp towel.

When selling shellfish, let customers know that they are buying live seafood and it’s up to them to keep them that way. You can emphasize this point by packing their oysters in unsealed plastic bags on a bed of ice. This should keep shellfish alive during the trip home, but warn customers that an extended period of time in a hot environment could melt the ice and leave the oysters sitting in fresh water, which can kill them. For customers who have a lengthy commute, suggest they bring a cooler next time, which will insulate the shellfish against the furnace-like environment of a hot car in the sun. Once home, encourage customers to recreate the pan-and-damp-towel setup on the bottom shelf of their refrigerator, which tends to be the coldest area. It also makes clean-up easier if there’s any spilling.

Birds, Bees, and Oysters

You probably already know that warm weather triggers oysters to spawn. Here on the West Coast, oysters spawn at 57 degrees and above, which is pretty warm for Northern California and the Pacific Northwest. Cold water upwelling during the spring and summer generally keeps water temperatures well below that level. Even in the warmer sheltered bays where oysters are farmed–like Marin County’s Tomales Bay–spawning is rare.

Spawning tuckers the bivalves out and leaves them looking milky and less firm. During reproduction, oysters expend their stores of glycogen, a carbohydrate that keeps them plump. A spawning or spawned oyster is thin and watery. They are safe to eat, but not in their prime flavor-wise.

R Is for Right-timing

This reproductive process, as well as fears about warm-water spawned toxins, have given rise the to “R” rule. You’ve heard customers ask about it–don’t eat oysters in months without an “R” (May, June, July, and August). Turns out the rule isn’t a rule at all, at least not for farmed oysters.

In carefully managed aquaculture operations, concerns about warm water and spawning oysters are moot. Oyster farms manage reproduction in carefully controlled, offshore tanks. Aquaculture operations also monitor water quality, so if red tides or water toxins spike during warm weather, harvesting is put on hold.

Reputable seafood wholesalers ensure their oysters come from cold-water, sustainable aquaculture operations. Of course, starting out with the freshest oysters you can get your hands on puts you ahead of the game. Pucci Foods has been supplying fresh, sustainable shellfish of all kinds to the Bay Area since 1918. Contact us to order fresh wholesale oysters, clams, mussels, sea urchin, and more.

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