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Oyster Fraud: The Restaurant Industry's Dirty Little Secret

Photo credit: Getty Images

“What’s what?” I whispered to my dining companion, gazing at our ice-packed plate of glistening raw oysters. We’d ordered a dozen varieties that originated all over North America, but they looked remarkably similar—as though they’d been plucked from the same oyster bed. We peppered our waiter with questions, but he seemed equally perplexed, apologizing with a shrug.

He could have served us anything, I thought, and we’d be none the wiser.

Such is the case for many diners, says oyster expert John Bil. “I’m not saying that people are getting bad oysters, they’re just not getting the oysters they think they’re getting,” he explained. “There’s certainly a 25 percent chance.”

Bil would know: the champion oyster shucker spent a decade working on oyster farms on Prince Edward Island, and today consults with restaurants in the United States and Canada about their raw bar programs.

Oyster fraud is an “open secret,” says Bil. It’s also part of a larger conversation about seafood fraud, which has been making headlines over the last few years. In February, ocean advocacy group Oceana issued a report concluding that a third of the 1,200 seafood samples from retail outlets it tested in 21 states were mislabeled.

In the current era of farm-to-table dining, knowing where your food comes from isn’t just responsible, it’s popular—so much so that it’s been lampooned on the sketch comedy program “Portlandia.”

The oyster industry holds a particular appeal for those who care about sourcing. In reality there are only five species eaten in the Western world: Kumamoto, Eastern, Pacific, European flats, and Olympia. But water temperature and quality can dramatically affect the taste and texture of a bivalve, and there are hundreds of oyster varietals named for the bays and inlets in which they are cultivated. Restaurant menus proudly display the names of these varietals, whether they’re modestly sized Damariscottas from the eponymous river in Maine, or fat, sweet Pearl Bays from British Columbia.

Some varietals have become very recognizable—brands unto themselves, as it were. Even novice oyster-lovers might recognize the name “Kumamoto,” or “Kumos,” as they’re known, but they may not know that it’s a small-cupped, West Coast oyster with a sweet, melon-like flavor. Famous varietals can command a high price; at Elliott’s Oyster House in Seattle, Kumos sell for $3 a pop, and cost a whopping $3.95 each on the opposite coast, at Manhattan’s Lure Fishbar.

Restaurants certainly have an incentive to serve them, but some places can’t afford the real thing, or they’ve been swindled by dishonest distributors, Bil said. The U.S. government requires that producers mark their oysters with tags explaining their origin, harvest date, and the producer’s certification number from the Interstate Shellfish Sanitation Conference (ISSC), but these tags are easily doctored. (If caught, however, penalties can be steep for perpetrators.) And in the absence of an outbreak of bivalve-induced illness, authorities have little incentive to investigate fraudulent claims.

"There are more oysters being sold as Kumamotos than there are Kumamotos being pulled out of the water," Bil said.

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Photo credit:  Flickr/lsgcp

“You can pass off a small Pacific as a Kumo,” said Greg Dale, operations manager of Coast Seafoods. Coast is among the few U.S. producers that raise pure Kumos, Dale told us, and its seed stock was genetically tested a few years back to make sure. “I would say that a majority of people who are [incorrectly] claiming to have Kumos are doing it in a restaurant scene, and I think they’re doing it mistakenly.”

Oyster fraud isn’t limited to Kumos; among Pacific and Eastern oysters, it can be hard to tell one varietal from the next unless you’re an expert.

Dale recalls dining out with friend Jim Lentz, the owner of Olympia, Washington’s Chelsea Farms, which is known for a Pacific oyster called Chelsea Gems. “We got the oysters, and they were not Chelsea Gems,” Dale said. “We both kind of looked at each other and we were like, ‘Are you freaking kidding me?’ What I do know is that we are the pickiest [expletive] when it comes to oysters.”

Oyster fraud had landed some outfits in hot water. In 2003, the Hama Hama Company, which had trademarked its oysters of the same name, sued competitor Gold Coast Oyster for selling what Gold Coast called “Hama Hama” oysters. In 2004, a judge ruled in favor of the Hama Hama Company, and Gold Coast was forbidden from selling its own Hama Hamas.

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Photo credit: Coast Seafoods

The best way to avoid getting cheated at the raw bar? Learn how your favorite oysters are supposed to look and taste, said Nellie Wu, the general manager of oyster distributor W&T Seafood.

"Consumers don’t really know because they’re just not educated about it," she said. "You’re supposed to order oysters like you order wine." Wu conveniently teaches classes on precisely this subject at the Astor Center in New York City.

But a better solution may be on its way. Bill Dewey, director of public policy and communications of another major Kumo producer, Taylor Shellfish Farms, hopes that more advanced technologies will replace conventional tagging. Dewey serves on a traceability committee helmed by the ISSC, and he says the group is looking at cloud-based technology that would give every box of oysters a barcode-like label called a Quick Response (QR) code.

A quick scan could reveal how temperature-stable the oyster has been over the course of its journey, producer and distributor information, and even the oyster’s genetic parents. Scammers might still find a way to exploit the system—“If there’s a will, there’s a way,” Dewey sighed—but he believes a QR code is much more difficult to doctor than the current tags.

Dewey thinks the technology could help health inspectors and ISSC regulators in their investigations. Also, he sees room for improved happy hour conversations: “Customers can scan it with their smart phones,” he said. “You’d sit in an oyster bar and listen to the conversations going around and around. How cool would that be?”

This oyster obsessive would have to agree.