‘Food of love’ yet to reach its potential

Published on
February 6, 2011

Oyster farmers are gearing up this week to supply the annual consumption feast that is Valentine’s Day, when this mollusk’s aphrodisiac reputation comes into its own. According to Rob Mitchell, commercial director of the Scottish Shellfish Marketing Group, demand increases significantly in the run-up to Valentine’s Day. “There will be a huge surge in promotional activity for oysters this week, but we are ready for it and they are in excellent condition,” he said.

So what makes them so popular on 14 February? Firstly, they are rich in vitamins and minerals, especially zinc, which is implicated in the production of testosterone. They are also a source of dopamine, which amplifies the intensity of sensation, all of which helps to explain why oysters are known as the “food of love.” Do they work? Well, there are plenty who swear by them, but there is an equal number of sceptics.

What is more important is that oysters are a health food and deserve wider appreciation throughout the year. Research carried out by the Shellfish Association of Great Britain shows that six Pacific oysters (Crassostrea gigas) represent 43 percent of a person’s weekly intake of omega-3. Greater consumption could mean greatly increased health benefits. Persuading people to eat them is another matter.

In the past, when abundant wild beds ensured they were more plentiful, they were a cheap, everyday food, enjoyed by both royalty and the masses. Today, with wild beds in decline, we have to rely on farmed oysters, and they have become more of an exclusive, expensive meal. 

The results of a survey comparing the past and present condition of oyster reefs around the world was published in the February issue of BioScience, the journal of the American Institute of Biological Sciences. An international team led by Michael W. Beck of The Nature Conservancy and the University of California-Santa Cruz found that oyster beds are “the most severely impacted marine habitat on the planet.”

The decline in their fortune was mostly found to be the result of disease and over-harvesting, exacerbated by the introduction of non-native species. Such news is not good for the mollusk, but it is not news to those in industry, for the demise of oysters in areas including Chesapeake Bay in the United States and Europe’s North Sea is well documented.

However, Beck reminds people that oysters are good for the environment, filtering and cleaning the seas and acting as a carbon sink, as well as providing a source of food. He argues for improved mapping efforts and the removal of over-exploitation incentives in the hope that some reefs can be allowed to recover.

Oyster farmers are aware that responsibility for increased consumption lies at their door, yet many are struggling with disease issues. The recent problems with OHV (ovine herpes virus) in Europe mean that stocks of juveniles for on-growing are at an all time low, and oyster prices are likely to increase in the near term. In the Unites States, Maine oyster farmers are struggling with the protozoan MSX (multinucleated sphere unknown), which is killing thousands of oysters.

Oysters are also a cause for concern for the regulatory authorities. Earlier this month, the UK Food Standards Agency reminded people about the possible risks of contracting norovirus, the “winter vomiting bug,” from eating raw oysters. However, norovirus does not originate in the oysters but is filtered from the water and is the result of less than perfect water treatments.

For the oyster industry, the challenges are numerous, and overcoming them will be no small feat. But accentuating the positive — whether it’s omega-3s or the “food of love” mantra — is the key to boosting oyster sales year-round.

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