Why we eat oysters alive

Raw oysters are either still alive — or freshly killed — when you eat them. Many people think keeping them alive longer makes them safer to eat, but that's not the full story. Oyster expert Julie Qiu explains.

Video Transcript

- Do you want to know a secret? This oyster I'm about to eat could still be alive. So why do we do this?

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Most people think it's a food safety issue. You keep the oyster alive as long as possible, and that reduces the risk of bacterial contamination. And there is a little bit of truth to that. Oysters can carry a scary flesh-eating bacteria called Vibrio vulnificus. You can get it from oysters or from swimming with an open wound in brackish water, where the bacteria lives. But let's put things in perspective.

JULIE QIU: The risk of running into a bad oyster is phenomenally low. My biggest pet peeve is people, like, go crazy over one bad oyster in the news, but they don't really care that hundreds of thousands of pounds of lettuce are contaminated with salmonellas.

About 100 people die from Vibrio infections each year. About 450 die from salmonella. Plus, the FDA requires that oyster farms have to test water quality before sending oysters out to markets and restaurants. And that's important because oysters are filter feeders. They soak up basically anything that's in the water around them, including fecal matter, which can come from rain runoff. Yuck.

But there's a clever little secret way you can check how fresh your oysters are.

JULIE QIU: One thing that you can ask for is a shellfish tag, which every retailer or restaurant is required to have for every bag of oysters that they purchase for up to 90 days after that purchase. So that tag, like, if they don't have it, don't eat those oysters.

- This tag is a way for restaurants to track where and when their oysters were farmed. Qiu says that she looks for the most recent dates on the tag. Anything further out than two weeks won't taste as good and increases the risk of a bad oyster. Some chefs may look at you funny for asking for this documentation, but it's a strategy that apparently works.

JULIE QIU: I try to do the math, and I've probably had over 6,000 or 7,000 oysters by now in my lifetime, and I've never gotten sick once from an oyster.

- Basically, oysters are safe. So, question. Why on earth are they still sometimes alive or dying when we're eating them?

JULIE QIU: You really want your raw shellfish to be absolutely fresh. And, you know, the freshest you can get is something that is just very recently killed. So it's-- it goes back to not only the food safety, but the actual taste and the texture of that oyster is going to be just far superior.

- So basically, freshly killed oysters taste better. And it's hard to tell exactly when an oyster dies because before it's served, it's shucked, and shucking is-- how should I put this-- shucking is not a gentle process.

Shucking involves separating the oyster's abductor muscle from its shell. This muscle gives the oyster control over opening and closing the shell, similar to how your spinal cord helps you move. So severing their abductor muscle is almost like severing your spine. Yikes.

Most restaurants in the US keep their oysters alive on ice up until the shucking process, which either kills the oyster or renders it completely immobile. Since they don't move around much in the first place, it's kind of hard to tell which.

So it's easy to feel guilty, sitting there eating an oyster that was either just killed or is maybe dying.

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But consider the oyster's biology. It's very primitive, so it's possible that they might not even feel pain at all.

JULIE QIU: They don't have a brain. They're not really processing pain the same way that we process any kind of feeling. So I-- I don't believe that they are feeling pain the same way that we are thinking of it.

- So really, it's up to you. If you don't want to eat oysters, that's fine. And if you do, you won't be the first.

JULIE QIU: It's one of the few foods that have not changed in, like, thousands and thousands of years. So being able to appreciate a food that has remained unchanged for that long is something really special and remarkable, and I think that should be celebrated for what it is.

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