Shellfish Food Safety

Shellfish, like all proteins, have a shelf life and require proper refrigeration. Take precautions with your shellfish – as you do meats, fish, eggs and poultry – to reduce the risk of food-borne illness.

General Handling

The BC Centre for Disease Control recommends the following shelf life for shellfish.
  • Do not eat clams, mussels, or oysters in the shell that do not open when cooked.

  • Purchase shellfish from a reputable supplier.

  • Do not purchase (or consume) shellfish with strong or rotten odours.

  • Keep shellfish cold (less than 4°C). Use an ice pack and cooler to keep shellfish cold until it can be refrigerated. Refrigerate immediately after purchasing.

Live Shellfish

Live oysters, clams and mussels should close their shells when handled. Tap any open shells firmly a few times.  If the shell closes, the shellfish is still alive. Discard animals with broken shells or shells that do not close when tapped.
  • Keep live shellfish in an open container and chilled (0-4°C) at all times prior to consumption.

  • Do not place live shellfish in fresh water or a closed container. (The animals will suffocate and die.)

  • Store live shellfish on the lowest shelf in the refrigerator - covered with a damp towel.

  • Take precautions to ensure the juices or liquids from live shellfish do not leak onto other food items.

Fresh Shellfish (Shucked)

  • Store in a leak-proof bag or sealed plastic or glass container.

  • Monitor the 'best before' date on containers of fresh shellfish.

Frozen Shellfish (Shucked)

  • Store frozen shellfish at -18°C

  • Use store-frozen seafood within three to four months of the date it was frozen. (Commercially frozen shellfish can be stored in the freezer until up to six months.)

  • That frozen shellfish in the refrigerator overnight or in cold water for approximately one hour. (If you use the microwave, use the defrost setting until the shellfish are softened but still icy.)

  • Following cooking recommendations provided on shellfish packaging.

  • Monitor the 'best before' date on containers of frozen shellfish.

  • Source: BC Centre for Disease Control

Harvesting Your Own

It can be a fun outing to go out to the beach and harvest shellfish. Before you do, make sure that you take these steps.

Buy a Tidal Waters Licence from Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard. They can be purchased online.

Confirm that the area is open for harvest. Contact your local office of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard via their 24-hour information telephone line at 1-866-431-3474 or consult their Pacific Region website at

Harvest can be closed for sanitary closures and/or biotoxin closures. It is very important that you check before you harvest and that you harvest only from approved, open areas.

Harvest shellfish when the shellfish are still under water on a receding/outgoing tide.

Stay at least 125 metres away from float homes to ensure there is not sewage contamination of the shellfish.

Refrigerate the shellfish immediately after harvesting. Use an ice pack and cooler to keep shellfish cold (less than 4°C) until they can be refrigerated.

Raw Oysters & Food Borne Illness

British Columbia’s farmed oysters are famous for their quality and taste. Oyster bars around the globe feature raw oysters farmed right here – in our local waters.

Shellfish are filter feeders and, as a result, natural bacteria, viruses and plankton toxins pass through their systems. The shellfish are not impacted by these organisms, but – if the conditions are right – they can build up in the shellfish meat and cause illness in humans when consumed raw.

Vibrio parahaemolyticus (Vp) is a naturally-occurring bacterium that inhabits British Columbia’s coastal waters. During warm summer months, the levels of bacteria in the water increase and bivalve shellfish, especially raw oysters, can become contaminated. Human Vp infections are associated with eating raw shellfish or exposure to recreational water contaminated with Vibrio.

The BC Centre for Disease Control has very comprehensive information about Vibro as well as Tools and Resources available on its website.

The shellfish farming industry is highly-regulated and monitors the environment and the shellfish meat, specifically and diligently, to ensure the products you purchase are clean and safe. We encourage you to purchase your shellfish from your local shellfish processor, distributor, market or restaurant. Enjoy.

As with all proteins (e.g., beef, eggs, pork, spinach), thorough cooking of shellfish reduces the risk of food-borne illness. Individuals with certain health conditions may be at higher risk if these foods are consumed raw or undercooked.