If you’re visiting your favorite seafood restaurant, you may order a delicious plate of hot, steaming mussels that have been cooked to perfection.
They are a very popular seafood item that goes well in all sorts of dishes, from fish stew (or pie!) to seafood paella and linguine. You can dress them down or make them as fancy as you want, depending on what the situation calls for.
Of course, it is also perfectly acceptable to eat mussels on their own as a snack. They are available to buy in grocery stores or fish markets so you can cook them yourself and have them whenever you want, unburdened by restaurant opening hours.
However, you might not be able to wait to get your mussel fix, because cooking can be a lengthy process.
In this case, is there anything stopping you from just ripping open the packet and eating them raw? Or even grabbing one straight out of the sea and gobbling it down there and then?
Slow down a second and we’ll tell you what you can and can’t do when you’re dealing with mussels, and how you can enjoy them safely.
Are Raw Mussels Dangerous?
Mussels contain a number of biological agents that can be toxic if ingested by humans. These include E coli, Salmonella and Vibrio parahaemolyticus, at least some of which are present in all bivalve mollusks.
Eating mussels that haven’t been cooked properly can result in food poisoning from the above-mentioned bacteria, and it can affect you in a number of ways.
The possible symptoms you can develop from eating raw mussels include:
- Stomach Cramps
Mussels are more dangerous to eat raw than other seafood, because they have higher levels of pathogens, which can also increase rapidly over time.
While you would usually remove the digestive organ when you prepare mollusks or shellfish etc., you don’t do this with mussels – this part has the highest concentration of toxins.
Are Some People More At Risk Than Others?
As with many dubious food practices, eating mussels raw can be more dangerous for certain groups of the population.
Pregnant people should avoid eating raw mussels because their unborn children won’t have the same tolerance levels to toxins, and can be harmed in utero.
Similarly, other high-risk categories include those with a weakened immune system, young children, and the elderly.
For these people, the consequences of eating raw mussels can be much more severe than for fit, healthy adults.
Why Do Some Restaurants Serve Raw Mussels?
‘Raw’ mussels are sold as a delicacy in certain establishments, but these aren’t using the word in its strictest sense.
They haven’t been plucked from the ocean and made their way immediately to your plate – they will have undergone several precautionary processes beforehand to make sure they’re safe for consumption.
Any raw mussels in restaurants have to be prepared in an acid marinade. This typically contains salt, onions, and spices mixed in a solution of vinegar and water.
Mussels should be left to soak in the marinade for at least three hours in cold conditions, although marinating them for too long will not taste their best, so it is important to time this part correctly.
As well as tenderizing the meat and allowing it to be preserved for longer, the marination process can remove some of the bacteria in the mussels through its acidic content.
A lot of the toxins are carried in the internal liquids, and marinating draws out the juice, reducing the concentration levels of harmful substances. However, it is still no substitute for cooking them, and it especially won’t get rid of the bacterium vibrio.
When Should Mussels Not Be Eaten At All?
Whether you plan on cooking your mussels or eating them raw, there are some things you need to look out for when selecting which ones to use.
Good mussels will smell slightly fishy, but those with a very strong odor should be left alone. This includes any unpleasant smells – you will instinctively know if you come across ones like this.
As with all shellfish and seafood, mussels go bad very quickly once they are dead, so there is only a small window in which they are safe for consumption. Mussels that don’t close or open when you tap them have already died, so you should discard these.
All mussels should be still alive at the time of cooking, so as long as a mussel moves in some way, it can be eaten. Also, check the shells to see if they are broken anywhere, as cracks can be another sign that a mussel is damaged.
The summer is a bad time for catching mussels – not because there are none available, but because this is when a phenomenon called Red Tide is most common. Red Tide occurs when concentrations of algae increase so much in an area of water that they turn it red.
These high algae levels can deplete the oxygen resources nearby and omit toxic chemicals that can harm the ecosystem. Factors such as high ocean temperatures and low salinity can instigate a Red Tide event.
Consuming mussels that have been affected by Red Tide can put you at greater risk of food poisoning.
Mussels need to be cooked thoroughly to ensure that all the harmful bacteria are killed and won’t cause you food poisoning. If you choose to order ‘raw’ mussels in a restaurant, you are taking on the potential risks that can be involved.
It is not recommended that you serve raw mussels yourself, unless you are very familiar with how to identify suitable mussels and prepare them properly.
Definitely avoid eating any raw seafood if you are pregnant or have an immune deficiency, as both these conditions can exacerbate the risks and even endanger your life.
It is best to stick with cooking your mussels, as then you can enjoy them fully without worrying about what they could do to you. There are many exciting ways to cook mussels, so you won’t be ruining them by adding heat to the equation.