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Is It Safe to Eat Shellfish in the San Francisco Bay Area?

Given the recent toxin scares, here’s what you need to know before you get cracking. 

Exploring Santa Barbara’s Coastal Charms Photo by George Rose/Getty Images

Last winter, Dungeness crab season got cut short. This summer, a warning went out on recreationally caught mussels. Given the recent algae blooms and toxin scares, dedicated crustacean fans might be wondering — is it safe to eat shellfish in the San Francisco Bay Area?

“Yes, it is,” says Dr. Raymond Ho, the director of the San Francisco division of California Poison Control. “The health department has a pretty robust program to monitor for any toxins.” And while everyday eaters might be alarmed to see shellfish toxins make the news, in fact, they should feel reassured that there are now clear advisories. “I can tell you, having been in poison control for 15 years, it is rare to see a case of shellfish poisoning. There’s a lot of testing.”

The Dungeness crab concern is domoic acid, which has shortened commercial seasons the past few winters. Warmer water temperatures made algae bloom, which in turn released a neurotoxin with serious health risks. Domoic acid attacks the central nervous system, which in severe cases can lead to seizures, short-term memory loss, blurred vision, or coma.

Recreationally caught mussels, clams, and scallops presented a fresh issue this summer. A health warning went out for paralytic shellfish poisoning (PSP), which is a slightly different type of toxin, but falls under the same category. You might mistake it for a case of food poisoning, or it could present more severe symptoms.

A key distinction is commercial versus recreational fishing. Commercial fishing is rigorously tested, so any shellfish sold in restaurants or markets should be safe to eat. Recreational fishing could be anyone tossing a crab pot over the side of a boat or filling up a bucket with mussels. Some fishermen are experienced, while others are amateurs, opening up risks.

The safest route is buying commercially caught shellfish from trustworthy restaurants and markets. Beyond that, Dr. Ho couldn’t care less about how it’s cooked. “Baked, steamed, roasted, it doesn’t matter, whatsoever,” he says. But what about the guts? Well, it is true that there are slightly higher concentrations of toxins in the viscera, which is why some chefs, out of an overabundance of caution, have been tossing it.

Still squeamish? The doctor has some exceedingly helpful phone numbers:

  • If you have a question about shellfish before you eat it, call the California Department of Public Health’s shellfish information line at 1-800-553-4133. That’s right, California has a hotline for all of your pressing crustacean and bivalve questions.
  • If you have a question about shellfish after you eat it, call SF Poison Control at 1-800-222-1222. Just like you would if your toddler decided to eat some household cleaner, which is (honestly) much more likely.

Last but never least, would you feel a bit better if someone else took a bite first? Rest assured, the doctor himself is cracking Dungeness crab come December. “Oh, I love crab,” says Ho, “I personally like to see if there are any huge red tide concerns. But I have never had any problems going to a local market and getting crab.”

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