You may have heard the saying that you should only eat oysters in months that contain the letter “r,” meaning oysters harvested in the warmer summer months of May through August were not safe for consumption.
However, oysters are now sold and consumed year-round with little to no worries. So what happened?
Justin Gremillion, chief sanitarian at the Louisiana Department of Health, says the rule is old-fashioned and out of favor.
“That was kind of brought about during times when the industry didn’t have a lot of adequate refrigeration,” Gremillion said. “It wasn’t readily available, it wasn’t reduced in price like it is now, at least somewhat affordable.”
Friday is National Oyster Day, and what better way to celebrate than with an oyster-filled meal.
When oysters are extracted from the water, they are exposed to higher temperatures that allow potentially hazardous pathogens to grow. Fishermen had to rely on months with “r” because air and water temperatures were typically cooler.
“They would always try to say hey let’s restrict this to those months with an ‘r’ because it’s cooler so that means oysters are safer to eat during those months,” Gremillion said.
He said with more readily available refrigeration, oysters can be safely harvested and sold anytime.
The Louisiana Department of Health has many restrictions and guidelines in place to ensure Gulf oysters are safe for consumption.
Gremillion said there are restrictions on how quickly oysters need to be harvested and placed in refrigeration to prevent the growth of pathogens.
Rules for oysters are determined at a national conference with the United States Food and Drug Administration, called the National Shellfish Sanitation Conference, where all 50 states meet and discuss what regulations work for everyone, Gremillion said.
He said rules across the nation are similar, and that allows Louisiana oysters to leave the state and be transported under federal regulations.
Gremillion also said the state uses a tagging system that identifies what each oyster will be used for and how quickly it needs to be placed in refrigeration based on the month and temperature.
Carolina Bourque, oyster program manager at the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, agrees the “r” rule is out of date.
She said oysters are most likely to reproduce in those months without the “r,” which may cause a milky taste in some oysters, but they are still safe to eat. Oysters grown in cages above the sea floor typically don’t reproduce, which would eliminate the milky taste, and they are safe to consume year-round with proper refrigeration, Bourque said.
Al Sunseri is owner of P&J Oyster Company and a member of the Oyster Task Force, an organization that monitors the oyster industry and makes recommendations to better it and also works to increase oyster production and salability, according to the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries website . Sunseri agreed the key to eating oysters year-round is good refrigeration.
He also said restaurants tend to slow down in the summer months, so oyster sales follow the same pattern.
Tommy Cvitanovich, owner of Drago’s Seafood Restaurant, said oysters used to be transported in a flat-bed truck before refrigerated trucks became more common, and oysters would sit in the environment from the time they were caught until they were brought into the city and placed in a cooler.
And while he agrees that state regulations make oysters safe to eat year-round, he still thinks the best oysters come in the winter months.
“Technically, in my opinion, the best oysters you’re gonna eat on a year-round, regular basis are Jan., February, March, April and into May,” Cvitanovich said. “Those are absolutely the best Louisiana oysters then.”
Paul Rotner, the CEO of Acme Oyster House, also agrees the saying is false.
Rotner said in the past, people would be hesitant about eating oysters in warmer months because it causes issues with the outside of the shell.
The state of Louisiana passed new refrigeration laws, and boats added refrigeration so the oysters could go immediately from the water and into refrigeration, Rotner said.
Rotner said Acme’s oyster sales are not really affected in the summer months and remain steady throughout the year.
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