THE FOG OF TRUTH - Prose and Cons
“All rise” the bailiff bellowed “the court of Crassostrea Opinicus is now in session. Judge Perry Winkle presiding.”
Judge Winkle is a dignified gentleman. His robes sway loosely from his athletic frame as he enters and mounts the stairs to his huge wooden desk. He lowers his body into the chair of honor and towers over the gathered assembly. His head is cocked forward on a long neck like that of a stalking bird of prey. Years of daily judiciary tasks have provided the huge steel wool eyebrows that help to shield his piercing eyes. Without moving, he is able to look either down at his notes or peer out at the courtroom.
The judge gestures for all present to be seated. His stern glare causes both the attorneys and their clients to avoid his eye contact. The twelve members of the jury seem pleased and are relaxed by contrast. They sit comfortably resembling scrubs on the bench at a basketball game, watchful, but not yet fully engaged. They trust that he will coach their deliberations.
The case of Crassostrea Opinicus versus Miles Tyler is to be heard today. Tyler is a journalist by profession. He is a small, slender man slumped awkwardly in a too formal chair. In contrast to the judge, he is obviously extremely uncomfortable. He wipes moisture from his eye sockets with a wad of damp tissues. We are not sure whether he is sweating or dabbing traces of tears.
“The gourmet press is constantly misrepresenting information about bivalves, your honor.” The bailiff is responding to the query of Judge Winkle. “It has consistently misstated the scientific facts about oysters in such a way as to confuse the public. The accused is a member of the gourmet press.”
The judge’s eyes meet Tyler’s for the first time. Judge Winkle has a reputation for fairness but the faint traces of a scowl betray his hidden sentiments today. Winkle grew up on the beaches of Wellfleet and was shucking oysters by the age of nine. Tyler can feel the morning meal rising from within despite his dry mouth. Too much coffee. Too much oatmeal. Too much ….
The voice of the judge penetrates Tyler’s physical misery and has arrived at his brain. “How do you plead sir?” The judge does not like repeating himself. “What say you?”
“I am not guilty, your honor” Tyler was standing now. His pulse was racing. Of course he had written some things that were questionable in the past, but he always had scientists review his work. He was well aware of how difficult it was to say something universally true about all oysters everywhere. There are just too many variables – too much uncertainty.
Tyler’s stomach seemed to settle down once the proceedings got under way. A metal pitcher full of ice water leaked droplets of condensation into a puddle on a brown plastic tray in front of him. Sipping a glass of cold water also helped to control his grief. But it seemed, at that moment, like a dense fog was engulfing the courtroom. He could barely see across it to the witness podium. He heard the prosecution calling its first witness, Gregor Lutz, a famous chef whom Tyler had never met.
Tyler heard the prosecutor’s respectful voice. “Chef, the accused has written, and I quote, ‘taste is not a constant, it is a variable. Everyone does not taste the same way. Since an oyster is so small, it cannot be shared easily. So every oyster is a private uniquely distinct pleasure.’ Do you agree?”
“Oysters are animals,” the chef snarled. “They filter the water where they live to find food. Two oysters the same age and species, harvested from the same place, should taste very nearly the same.” He seemed angry to be asked such a basic question.
Tyler’s mind was a blur. His mouth silently formed the words “but I won’t have the same experience as you do.” Tyler mused about the many oysters that he had served to different people. Oysters the same age from the same farm would be described differently by different people. Some thought they were too salty. Others not salty enough. His mind wandered off, but was jarred awake by the whacks of the judge’s pounding gavel.
“Wake up the accused.” Judge Winkle bellowed and pounded. “No one sleeps in my courtroom.” Winkle was clearly annoyed. “Repeat the chef’s question so the accused can hear it.”
The prosecutor spoke softly but clearly. “Chef, do you serve oysters in the “non-R” months?”
“I do” the chef responded. “Some oysters called triploids are specifically bred so they do not spawn. Warmer water will not trigger them to reproduce like it does other more traditional hatchery bred oysters. When traditional oysters are available from colder waters in the summer, we try to locate them. We find them before they spawn. Water temperature is the key. I do not like the taste of spawning oysters. After they spawn they are pretty worn out. It takes a little time for them to regain energy, body fat, and full flavor.”
Tyler was relieved to hear the chef’s frank response. It seemed to lift the fog. He could see across the courtroom. Several scientists were in attendance, either as witnesses or out of professional curiosity. They nodded their approval. He winked at his friend Belinda, a marine biologist who specializes in forensic cases. He knew she would also be called.
Lorrenzo P. Hotput, PhD, the famed British oyster historian, was called to the stand to explain the history of the “R” months. Tyler knew that the whole mention of “R” month preference with oysters started in England and still persists in the British Isles for native oysters. Only farmed oysters are legally consumed there in the summer months. The native oysters are generally also a different species than the farmed oysters. Hotput raised a few eyebrows when he complained about French farmers buying Scottish oyster farms. The judge ordered that his irrelevant remarks be stricken from the record and Hotput was abruptly excused from the witness stand.
“The prosecution calls Dr. Belinda Quointoss to the stand.” Tyler sat up in his chair. He knew his friend would defend him.
“Do you swear to tell the truth and nothing but the truth?” it was the bailiff speaking now. “So help you Gawd?”
“I do.” Belinda's jaw visibly twitched as she involuntarily clenched her teeth awaiting the first question. The weather in the room quickly changed and the fog again rolled in obscuring her from view. Tyler leaned forward to hear the dialogue between Dr. Quointoss and the prosecutor that followed.
“Do you recommend consuming raw oysters in the summer months?” It was the voice of the prosecutor coming out of the haze.
“No, not always.” Belinda was quick to respond. “I am from New England, but in the summer months, in some Gulf states, laws prohibit restaurants from serving raw oysters. The main problem is bacteria that can multiply in oysters when they are exposed to temperatures above 50 degrees Fahrenheit.”
Tyler’s face is frowning. He is not sure if Belinda is correct. There have been attempts by the FDA to pass such laws, but he doesn’t believe that any state has such a prohibition. These bacteria are naturally occurring and more prevalent when water temperatures are high. Once an oyster is removed from the water, the bacteria can multiply inside the shell and will multiply faster at higher temps. It is true that growth of these bacteria is halted below 50 degrees Fahrenheit.
“Is it, or is it not the same species of oyster?” The prosecutor wanted to dwell on the possible conflicting opinions.
“It is the same.” Belinda replied. “But it is the water temperature that triggers the rapid growth of the bacteria that is so dangerous to humans. These bacteria are also dangerous to boaters, swimmers, and fishermen. Half of all cases are related to wound infections. Local health officials closely monitor the reported cases."
“What do you mean by local?” It was the prosecution boring in now.
Belinda was feeling more comfortable. Her speech flowed easily. “The word ‘local’ is not an accurate scientific term. You might speak of an oyster farm near your town as being local. The word ‘local’ can be used to describe an oyster from your state or region. An American oyster may be described as ‘local’ as compared to say an oyster from Europe or China. People often use the term as a tool to control competition. From a product distribution point of view, local does not always mean sustainable.”
“So are you saying that sustainability is a local issue?” The prosecutor was wading into quicksand now.
Belinda took a breath and rolled her eyes. “Sustainability is complicated.” She said.
“Some years ago the United Nations defined sustainability as having three components: societal, economic, and environmental. The precise mix of the component parts was not defined. That means that if all three components are considered at all, the sustainability of a question has been addressed. As I said, local does not necessarily imply sustainability. A product’s distribution method can be more or less sustainable, but you cannot say that unsustainable production methods are rendered sustainable by being local. You can say that product that was locally produced has less food-miles and that its distribution has a smaller carbon footprint, but unsustainably produced local food is still not sustainable. Loosely speaking, sustainability often also refers to an action that can successfully be perpetuated.”
“Do you think that the defendant Mr. Tyler has been conscientious in his reporting of these issues?
Belinda: “Yes I do.”
Miles beamed. He knew that her comments were being well received by both the jury and the judge. Little did he know what was in store for him from the next question.
“Tell the court, if you please, are you satisfied that the renaissance in oyster consumption caused by oyster farming is a positive contribution?”
Belinda was quiet, obviously choosing her words carefully. “There is considerable evidence that cultivated oysters and other shellfish successfully filter their saline environment and, by so doing, clean it. Oyster reefs naturally provide a habitat for many other forms of marine life. Oyster farms do too. Oyster farms also help to control nitrates and algae in a body of water allowing other forms of marine life to survive and flourish. “
“How do the techniques of mechanized oyster farming that have been developed in the last few decades help to feed the world?” It was a loaded question.
“The farming techniques that have been developed in the Western world are often designed to maximize efficiency and reduce labor costs. The boats, upwellers, and oyster grow-out cages are expensive. The seed that is used comes from hatcheries and is also expensive. Price is related to what the market will bear. Both consumers and restaurants in New England have clearly shown they are willing to pay more for cultured oysters because they are consistently available and consistent in size and shape. In other parts of the world, where labor is cheap, it is definitely possible to cultivate oysters economically but the methods are going to be very different. Oysters are an excellent source of nutritious food. If the price can be reduced, even here more people will eat them on a daily basis.”
“How can we reduce the price of oysters in the U.S.?” The tone of the voice of the prosecutor was skeptical.
“You are now asking a question beyond my scientific expertise. But I do have an opinion about it. The cost of the oyster is directly a function of the labor cost. So when the consumer does the labor, the cost will go down. Recreational shellfishing, for example, is a way to access oysters at a very reasonable price. It eliminates the farmer entirely but you lose the expertise and fine-tuning of the shell and taste. Another solution would be more ‘oyster gardening’ projects where consumers essentially become small scale farmers. They are often supervised by experts. When people form buying clubs, they can buy oysters in large quantities directly from farmers or distributors. This eliminates the seafood market and restaurants. Consumers can also request to buy seconds or rejects, ones that don’t have the top quality shape. They taste the same, but growers can’t sell their “b-grade” to restaurants. All of these methods represent relatively small numbers."
“The price is a question of what the market will bear, is it not?”
“Yes, for example, oysters cost less in the Gulf of Mexico. They are often dredged. Nature grows them and people harvest and cull them. It uses less labor and costs less. In the Pacific Northwest farmed oysters are often shucked and sold without the shell in plastic containers. This is simply the way their market has evolved. Their price is lower both because their costs are lower and because their markets won’t pay more. You can be sure that if the customers would pay more, farmers would charge more."
“Mr. Tyler here has said in his articles that aquaculture is already a primary source of seafood and that oyster farming is one of its most successful forms. Do you agree?”
“I do. Oyster farming is a successful form of aquaculture. Oyster farming is proving that human cultivation of marine life can be safely and successfully accomplished. It is the poster child for aquaculture. Every significant innovation has always been expensive at first. There is no question in my mind that oyster farming has a very positive ecological value. The social value of providing thousands of people with jobs is also extremely important. It’s not just the farmers who benefit. Even the people who work in restaurants benefit. Some of them, as you know, work at a minimum wage. Historically, when oysters were naturally plentiful, the entire social spectrum took advantage of their fertility. Different people just consumed them in different ways.”
“What do you predict will happen in the future?”
“There are several factors that could help to drive the price of oysters up. Global warming is causing acidification of the oceans and it is affecting infant oyster mortality. Global warming is also causing the climate in the northern regions of the U.S. to warm up. There is some evidence that diseases that thrive on warmer waters, are moving north. Diseases can wipe out whole estuaries full of oysters. Climate change is also causing more and more coastal storm damage. Oyster farms are often exposed to it. All of these factors impact the supply of oysters. Nonetheless, each year there are more and more farms and more and more oysters being consumed. But there is a wildcard.”
“What is that?”
“What affect is China having?”
“China is the largest oyster producer in the world. But the water quality and disease control methods for seafood in China are different than ours. The fear is that the Chinese will use our mechanized growing methods and better safety controls WITH their lower labor costs and flood inexpensive good quality raw oysters into our markets. In that case the price of our own oysters could go down. The Chinese already sell inexpensive canned meats or cooked meats into our markets. Our only salvation currently is that they cannot sell their raw shellfish in the U.S. As long as we can, and they cannot, our farms will survive. When the economy in China improves to the point where it can afford our oysters on a grand scale, our own market for oysters could be vastly affected. We are already selling large quantities of shellfish to China. The barrier is the cost of air freight. By selling frozen goods we can ship by sea and it becomes more affordable.”
“What about other countries supplying the Chinese?"
“Oysters are being raised in many parts of the world - Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Mexico, Brazil, India, and of course Europe – to name the major ones. Some of these countries have problems of quality control. I am not aware that the oyster markets in these countries are growing as fast as ours. The Chinese are more accustomed to the Pacific oyster, so our Eastern oyster may be less affected.”
“Do you have anything else to add Dr. Quointoss?
“For oysters to survive we need a healthy ocean. For oyster farmers to survive they need to make a healthy profit – raise the price of oysters. To feed the most people, we need a lower oyster price. It is a dilemma.”
“Thank you Dr. Quointoss. You have been very helpful.”
The fog lifted again as Belinda stood to leave. She was obviously weary but her steady gait to her seat in the gallery betrayed a quiet confidence. Tyler’s admiration was profound. This woman had probably saved his hide. His voice involuntarily broke the silence of a stunned courtroom with the words he loudly pronounced. “I adore you, Belinda!”
The judge’s gavel began to pound. It seemed like Judge Winkle was using it to pound invisible nails. “Wake up, the accused.” He was saying. “Wake up! Wake up!”
Winkle’s voice had changed. It had raised an octave and was almost feminine. Tyler could barely make him out in the fog… he was becoming sharper… sharper. Was he wearing a wig? He seemed smaller than he was earlier, more shapely too. He actually walked over to Tyler and grabbed him by the arm.
“Tyler” he said. “Wake up! You are having a nightmare.”
Tyler could make him out clearly now. Judge Winkle was not a man after all. It was Tyler’s wife Rachel who had him by the elbow. “Wake up you turkey. Who is this Belinda person?”
The knocker on the front door was thumping a steady rhythm. Who was it? Why was he asleep on the couch in the living room? His newsletter was already late. The computer screen on his laptop was blank except for a single word – “uncertainty.”
Note: The illustrations shown in this newsletter were inspired by the excellent 1957 Billy Wilder film "Witness for the Prosecutiion" an adaptation of an Agatha Christy short story starring Marlene Dietrich, Charles Laughton, and Tyrone Power. That trial took place in London. The nightmare depicted here took place in New England and will not be made into a film any time soon. ED.