From the desk of Stu Meltzer
For this month’s blog, we’d like to open a dialogue with you about the controversy around Bluepoint or Blue Point (more on that distinction later – we will here forward use ‘Blue Point’) Oysters. As many of you know, the name ‘Blue Point Oysters’ is currently applied to wild and semi-wild oysters from New York, Connecticut, Delaware, New Jersey and Virginia (since ‘Virginia Blue Points’ seem to be creating most of the fuss, we will focus there). Through conversations with many of you over the past month, we have heard variations of the following statement made by one of our customers, a buyer for a seafood distribution company, “Blue Points may be the most bastardized name in all of seafood.” Again, for this newsletter, we wanted to better understand how this came to be and offer our perspective on why you may want to help combat this 'bastardization'.
How did this happen? A quick history of the Blue Point may be helpful. Blue Point Oysters are thought to have been originally planted by Humphret Avery off the shore of Blue Point, New York in the Great South Bay in 1815 (Mr. Avery owned the land that the town of Blue Point, NY rests upon). Because the oysters are named after the town, the proper spelling is Blue Point Oysters, not Bluepoint Oysters. As the oyster industry gained momentum, Blue Point Oysters were a hit and led to significant harvest of Blue Points in the Great South Bay. The pressure to fill demand was intense. In an effort to meet demand, harvesters discovered that oyster seed grew quicker in the west side of the bay. This kicked off the practice of harvesting seed from the east side of the bay and planting it on the west side of the bay. When the available seed from the east side of the bay had begun to dry up, harvesters turned to the Long Island Sound (Connecticut side) for seed.
The Great South Bay Blue Point ‘fishery’ raged on until around 1910, when pollution consumed the Long Island Sound and oyster seed would not grow. Shortly thereafter, a major coastal storm in 1931 and a major hurricane in 1938 all but ended the oyster industry in Great South Bay.
Since then, the Connecticut beds have recovered and, presumably, in an effort to fill demand for the popular brand, many oyster harvesters within a whiff of the Long Island Sound have adopted the Blue Point name. While this infuriates some purists, other oyster experts that have already dismissed the Blue Point as a mass produced, generic oyster, are more apathetic. In addition, the Long Island Sound, not the Great South Bay has been the primary source of Blue Points for quite some time, further undermining any originalism. Nonetheless, for a distributor that sells to restaurants, it can certainly be frustrating when selling against a competitor who sells a wild/semi wild Virginia oyster as a Blue Point for a significantly lower price than a Connecticut Blue Point and markets them as similar products. But besides the frustration (and perhaps being generally unethical), what’s the big deal?
New York State does actually have a law, enacted in 1908, that states, “No person, firm or corporation shall sell or offer for sale any oysters, or label or brand any package containing oysters for shipment or sale, under the name of Blue Point oysters, other than oysters that have been cultivated in the waters of the Great South Bay in Suffolk County.” To the best of our knowledge, this law is not enforced in New York and similar laws don’t exist in other states. We’re all aware of the species mislabeling problem in the seafood industry, but that does not apply here. Here, the species is not being misrepresented (Crassostrea Virginica), we are talking about the equivalent of a brand name. And it appears that no trademarks have been issued to any company for the name ‘Blue Point Oyster’, meaning that the current industry practice is not infringing on any protected intellectual property.
Despite there being no legal risk, Pangea only sells Blue Point Oysters from the Long Island Sound. We sell wild Virginia oysters from the James River as James River Oysters. We adhere to this practice for several reasons. First, they are very different products. The salinity levels, shape and shell integrity are all quite different. In addition, as an oyster company, we do feel a responsibility to preserve the piece of oyster heritage that is the Blue Point brand. Last, we believe that the practice of stretching the Blue Point provenance results in a missed opportunity to convert chefs and the public into more sophisticated oyster consumers, which could lead to increased consumption.
Wine and craft beer consumer behavior is often used to understand and project oyster consumption trends and the wine and craft beer market may once again prove useful to understand why an educated consumer may be good for an industry. Would anyone argue that a wine drinker who is aware of terroir has helped wine sales? Or that the differences among the copious varieties of craft beer has sparked peoples' interest and has sprouted legions of hobbyists, which has contributed to the craft beer boom?
This conversation is difficult, we get it. A Chef has a product on the menu and must have it. Instead of having the tough conversation about why a product is unavailable and working to find another option, it’s easier if the Chef can get something that is considered a Blue Point Oyster and move on. Or better yet, give him what he wants (“Blue Points”, no matter where they are from) but at a better price! Everybody wins, right?
Again, we don’t see it that way. Instead, we would implore you to use this as a teachable moment to talk about the differences among oysters (grow methods, flavor, appearance, size, etc.). We have a lot of this information a couple clicks away on the Oysterology™ section of our website. Maybe that conversation leads to a Blue Point being substituted with an oyster from a grower who has plenty of product to sell. Then, maybe a restaurant patron sees that oyster on the menu, which prompts her to ask, ‘Oh, I’m not familiar with that oyster, what is it like?’ As described earlier, this curiosity can help to further expand the oyster renaissance that has been growing for some time in this country.
But you sell a lot of items and oysters are likely a small piece of your business, so why bother? The answer, in our view, goes back to our customer who pointed out that Blue Points are one of many “bastardized” terms in seafood. We believe that each “bastardized” term contributes to the overall lack of trust in seafood, which certainly affects your business. Take the restaurant patron again. What is she supposed to think when she goes into one oyster bar and gets a whole rap on merrior and may even see oysters from the same town with different names because of the nuance in flavor within the same bay and then goes to a steakhouse the following month to see Blue Points from a very different place than what she saw in that oyster bar? You have the ability to either exacerbate or reverse the mistrust in the seafood business and Blue Points present an opportunity to address it.
That said, this piece opened as an appeal to start a dialogue with you. So we would like to ask you, what is your perspective? Do you see this as an issue? Do you think it is worthwhile to address it? We’d love to hear from you.