Oyster Fraud: The Restaurant Industry's Dirty Little Secret
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“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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