No, Oysters Are Not Vegan. But That Isn’t the Whole Story…

I’m a vegan, and I’ve personally slaughtered approximately 1 million oysters in my lifetime. And for some reason, I don’t feel too bad about it.

For years, as a young twenty-something, I worked at one of the best raw bars in southwest Florida, as the restaurant’s primary shucker. Don’t get me wrong, I occasionally had my doubts and concerns about what I was doing, but shucking oysters and steaming mussels to death didn’t feel as horrible as boiling a lobster alive.

I’ve boiled hundreds of lobsters alive, by the way. I don’t feel good about it today, and I didn’t feel good about it back then. My intuition told me that there was a distinct difference, but I hadn’t actually explored the science behind why it was different.

Until now…

Science (So Far) Suggests that Oysters and Mussels Do Not Suffer

You may have seen articles circulating around about the “ostrovegan” issue, such as this editorial on Slate, Consider the Oyster. It’s almost certainly true that oysters and mussels do not suffer at the same capacity as dogs, cows, pigs, chickens and even fish– but that doesn’t mean it’s OK for vegans to eat them.

(For an alternative perspective on this issue, check out this blog from Marc Bekoff of the Huffington Post.)

Oysters and mussels do not have brains, or even a complex nervous system. Like plants, they are also not motile, thus rendering pain receptors an unnecessary biological feature. Unlike clams and scallops, oysters and mussels are sessile bivalves. Bivalves have two pairs of nerve chords and three pairs of ganglia.

There are no published descriptions of behavioral or neurophysiological responses to tissue injury in bivalves.

Although technically ocean animals, oysters and mussels are clearly different than lobsters, crabs, squid, fish, octopus, and even clams and scallops.


Oysters and Mussels Clean our Waters

Unlike the factory farming of any other animal, oysters and mussels actually improve their environment. They filter phytoplankton and excess nutrients, helping prevent ocean “dead zones.” They create reef-like habitats for small sea creatures. They help facilitate the food chain, as tiny shrimp-like creatures feed on their “pseudo-feces,” which are then eaten by crabs and seahorses.

In fact, due to the benign harvesting practices of most shellfish farmers, oysters and rope-cultured mussel cultivation causes significantly less animal suffering and animal deaths than most fruit, vegetable and grain farming operations! From a utilitarian ethics standpoint, even if oysters do feel some sort of pain, farming and consuming them may arguably be more ethical than not.


Buyer Beware

As filters feeders, they accumulate the toxins of their habitats, acting as beasts of burden for the ocean. Consumers should be extremely careful about where their oysters are sourced from. For example, Louisiana oysters are subject to tremendous amounts of agricultural runoff from the Mississippi River (“Round-Up Ready” Oysters!). 

And that’s not to mention the BP oil spill of 2010. Sadly, industrial runoff and environmental pollution may one day render these briny little snot-rockets inedible.

Some oysters are cultivated for the sole purpose of cleaning waterways, like the now completely inedible Liberty Oysters of Long Island.

Check out the Billion Oyster Project!

Oysters and Mussels are Nutrition Powerhouses for Vegans

If you’re on a plant-based diet and you’re concerned about nutritional deficiencies, oysters and mussels are excellent sources of iron, B12, protein, omega-3 fatty acids and zinc– all of which are somewhat elusive in a vegan diet. I’m not suggesting you go to your local oyster bar and shell-out $20-$30 for a dozen oysters, but if you seriously think you might have a nutrient deficiency due to an inadequate diet, eating oysters or mussels on occasion is a far better option than completely abandoning your vegan lifestyle. Rope-cultured blue mussels from Prince Edward Island, Canada, or Green Lipped Mussels from New Zealand are mostly safe, affordable options.

Oysters and mussels also contain significant amounts of cholesterol, which is something to consider.

Note: A properly planned vegan diet should not cause any nutritional deficiencies, as long as a B12 supplement is being used.


Bottom-Line: Make no mistake, oysters and mussels are not vegan, but they are probably the most “vegan” animal protein you can eat (besides clean meat, of course).

That being said, I no longer eat bivalves, as I prefer to give all animals the benefit of the doubt…just in case. Quite frankly, I no longer tolerate animal protein very well anymore anyway. But for people on the fence about going all in on a plant-based journey, I highly recommend sustainably raised oysters and mussels as a “cheat.”

If you’re struggling along your plant-based journey, and you feel some sort of nutritional or psychological respite eating oysters or mussels, then go for it! In my opinion, you don’t need to give up your vegan title to occasionally eat an animal that may or may not feel pain in the recognizable sense.

If you’re eating mussels instead of (and not in addition to) chicken, beef, pork or fish, then you’re on the right track… as long as you’re considering the source, of course.

(Note: Always consult a doctor before incorporating shellfish into your diet. Shellfish allergies are common and serious. Some people develop shellfish allergies later in their life. Even if you aren’t aware of any food allergies, an Epipen is a lifesaving tool that should be considered by all families).


F*** The Vegan Police

Insufferable vegans only harm their movement. Judgmental, idealogical hardliners seldom change people’s minds–particularly when fear isn’t an available motivator. It’s time to revolutionize vegan evangelism with a compassionate, empathetic approach tailored towards the mindset of an inherently anthropocentric world.

The new term “plant-based” didn’t spring up from nowhere. Some vegans understand that they have a PR problem. The “V word” has become a politically loaded term– so much so that some food brands are dropping the word “vegan” from their packaging and opting instead for “plant-based.” This semantic work-around is a response to years of negative publicity from insufferable vegan ideologues.

Idealogical groups usually end up cannibalising each other, as exemplified by many political and religious groups throughout modern world history. At the risk of sounding cliche, finding common ground is almost always the more productive route.

For Best Results, Compromise

When you consider the result of your attitude and actions, you will see that a gentler, more moderate approach to activism will yield greater benefits for your cause.

Tobias Leenaert of, uses the example of the “great vegetarian burger and the awful vegan burger” in his book How to Create a Vegan World: a Pragmatic Approach.

Envisage a situation in which you can buy a lunch for a really hungry nonvegan friend, whom we’ll call Bill. The restaurant offers two meatless choices: a great-tasting vegetarian burger (it has some egg in it to bind it), and a terrible-tasting vegan burger. Which one do you pick? From an idealistic viewpoint, you may reason that you cannot allow yourself to buy or even recommend anything nonvegan. Pragmatically, you may decide that if Bill eats the bad vegan burger, he may undergo an experience that will literally and metaphorically leave a negative taste in his mouth. This may make Bill less likely to become more open to trying other vegan products and to lose his “veg prejudice” in the future. Eating a tasty vegetarian burger, on the other hand, would mean some complicity in animal suffering, but the psychological effect of a person thinking Is that meat free? That’s yummy! is probably much more catalytic and valuable in the long run.

How to Create a Vegan World: a Pragmatic Approach (page 25), Tobias Leenaert

Public Opinion Changes Slowly

Change rarely happens overnight, and even the staunchest activists have to coexist with the rest of the world. The most effective human rights campaigns are won with positivity and a peaceful coexistence with the rest of society. Historically, marginalized ethnic/religious minorities, racial groups, and sexual orientations gain public favor when the majority population deems them harmless. Fear instigates hate. And people hate vegans. Not because they fear them, but rather they fear being subjected to uncomfortable conversations, insufferably judgmental rants, and even threats to their business or way of life. Vegans need to ease their way into the hearts and minds of the moderate, omnivorous public.

Not Vegan Enough

The best way for vegans to ensure that they’ll never see a vegan world is to hold newcomers to an impossible standard. Shunning honey, pet ownership, second-hand leather, and backyard egg-laying hens only serves as an idealogical barrier to the moderate, yet veg curious individual. The vegan police keep people out, when the whole idea is to keep them in.

Ethical Veganism as a Spiritual Movement

Pragmatism is effective and great, but it’s also boring. What about the people who are looking for a spiritual and ethical movement? Is there such a thing as being too pragmatic? 

The idealogical and pragmatic sides of the vegan/plant-based movement can and should coexist. There’s nothing wrong with gaining spiritual fulfillment from the practice of ahimsa, the Buddhist, Hindu and Jain tradition of not wishing harm to any living creature. The personal benefits of practicing universal benevolence gives veganism much of its allure and staying power, and should not go under-appreciated for the sake of dry, soulless pragmatism.

The Bottom-Line: No one is going to become convinced with the same arguments, and no one is going to be persuaded by only one argument. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to eliminating unnecessary animal suffering.

Health reasons. Environmental reasons. Ethical reasons. Spiritual reasons…They’re all good reasons.

Misanthropy is a demon that must be purged from vegan movement. Real vegans keep humans within their circle of compassion–and simply not eating people isn’t enough. We must not turn our backs on our own species, even as our own species turns its back on others.