(Image by Will Parson)

Richard Burlingame hoses down cages of oysters pulled from the Rappahannock River at Rappahannock Oyster Company in Topping, Virginia. Like many others in Virginia, the company has turned to aquaculture—oyster farming—in recent years to yield a more sustainable harvest.

An oft-repeated piece of advice about oysters is to only eat them in months containing the letter “R”: September, October, November and so on. But this adage became popular before commercial harvesting and oyster aquaculture were widespread. Warm weather brings along a variety of conditions that can make oysters less-than-appetizing: the bivalve’s natural lifecycle leads to a soft, flimsy oyster in the summer months; bacteria and harmful algae are more likely to be present and absorbed by the oysters; and it simply isn’t safe to eat shellfish that have been sitting out in hot weather, which was a concern in the days before refrigeration.

These days, oyster farming, water-quality monitoring and strict food safety practices have made it safe to eat raw oysters year-round. Many vendors use sterile breeds or import shellfish from cooler climates to avoid the thin, milky meat of spawning oysters. Monitoring bacteria and pollution at every step of the farming and harvesting process ensures that only oysters from clean waters make it onto your plate. And strict food safety regulations mean the shellfish are refrigerated from the moment they leave the water to when they’re sold to consumers.

Still, aficionados know the flavor of oysters can vary based on when and where they’re harvested. But you can rest easy knowing they’re safe to eat no matter the month.

Learn more about the eastern oyster, or learn about the role oysters play in the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem.

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