Why Oysters Are So Expensive | So Expensive

Oysters are a sure sign
of high-end decadence, but look back 200 years and they were handed out as free bar snacks. So what made them the luxury
food that they are today? Oysters have been around for a while. Estimates put the shellfish at
around 300 million years old, at least, and humans have been
enjoying them for centuries. Oyster cultivation was
invented by Sergius Orata, a Roman engineer also often
credited with the invention of underfloor heating,
and since his invention, oyster farming has become big business. While you may be seeing oysters
on the menu more these days, their popularity now is nothing compared to just 200 years ago. Oyster sales boomed from the
early 19th century onwards, and the shellfish were sold as street food across London, Paris, and New York as they remained a cheap and
accessible snack to many. In 1860, the small British
seaside town of Whitstable alone was sending 50 million tons of
oysters to London each year, and by 1900, New York was eating 1 million oysters every day. But as their popularity
grew, so did the problems. Industrialization and dredging
of the waters in England led to overfishing, and as
more people moved to the coast, more and more sewage ended up dumped in oyster-growing waters. Soon, there were outbreaks of
typhoid and other diseases, and many oyster beds had to be closed. Hard winters and new diseases killed off many of the remaining native oysters and gave the shellfish a bad reputation that lasted for years to come. There’s something else that kept the price of oysters down around
the turn of the century: child labor. In the early 20th century,
American photographer Lewis Hine captured photographs
of many of the children working in the oyster industry, even photographing 4-year-old Mary, who had apparently shucked
two pots of oysters each day. Things had to change, though. We soon realized the
importance of clean water in the oyster-growing process
and outlawed child labor. Making oysters environmentally safe and ethical to grow came at a cost, as the shellfish take a
lot of work to produce. And now when oysters are raised, the environment they’re grown in is one of the main considerations. Andre Hughes: Here, there’s no industry, there’s very little even farming here. What you’ve got out in the
loch is just everything that is natural in the
loch, so they’re feeding on the best possible
feed that you could want and there couldn’t be an
any more natural product. Narrator: Each oyster takes
two to three years to mature, and they start out microscopically small. The tiny shellfish are
grown in hatcheries. When they’re large enough,
they’re transplanted to their final growing place. Hughes: Well, we get the
oysters in from our hatchery when they’re about your thumbnail size. We will grow them in these baskets for approximately two to three years, and then we’ll send them
to the depuration center for depurating, and then
for pack and for dispatch. Narrator: At Loch Fyne,
every oyster is depurated, a process that cleans the oysters and removes any dangerous bacteria. Every single oyster
must be checked by hand. Making sure that each oyster
is shipped live is paramount. Hughes: Believe it or not, we sell roughly about 35,000 oysters every week out here, and every single oyster
is individually checked. So, what we would do is when
we’re packing the oysters, we’d pick up two oysters, and
we would tap them together. Now, you can obviously
see that one’s dead, but when you’re packing
thousands at a time, you wouldn’t necessarily see it, and sometimes it’s only
open just a little tiny bit, but when you tap that oyster, you can hear it almost straightaway, and that is the best way to tell if an oyster’s
gonna reach its shelf life, whether it should be discarded. [tapping] Narrator: Oysters may only
have a nine-day shelf life, but that doesn’t stop them being shipped all across the globe, and their popularity and
image as a luxury treat means that their demand
is only going to rise.

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