Seafood Safety Hints
Shellfish and fish are an important part of a healthy diet. Both provide high quality protein and are usually low in saturated fats. Many varieties of seafood provide the all important Omega-3 fatty acids.
When you shop for seafood you should choose a retail outlet that observes good food handling practices. The next time you shop take a look at the seafood department of your market. Observe the employees and see if they are practicing safe food handling techniques. Do the counter area and display cases look and smell clean? Is the fish displayed on clean ice? Are the refrigeration temperatures below 41°F? There are temperature gauges in the cases that you can check. If you are satisfied then this is the market where you should make your seafood purchases.
You might think that fresh fish is supposed to have a fishy odor. In fact, fresh fish should have a rather mild smell; it should never have a sour, fishy or ammonia-like odor. Fresh fish and filets should also have a slight shine on the surface. You should not notice any off colors such as green or yellowish discoloration and the edges of fresh filets should not appear dark or dried out. When you touch a fresh filet it should not feel mushy.
Frozen fish offers the convenience of storage and use at a later date. These days most fish is flash frozen shortly after being caught. If you decide to purchase frozen fish the first thing to check is the packaging. Be sure that the package is not open or torn and take a look for ice crystals. The presence of ice crystals could mean that the fish has either been stored for a long time or perhaps it had been thawed and the re-frozen. Avoid making frozen fish purchases when you encounter these signs.
How about shellfish? The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires that shellfish harvesters and processors place a tag on bags of live shellfish. The tag insures that the shellfish have been harvested from an area that is free of contamination. Shucked shellfish items are supplied in cans or plastic containers. These containers also must have an FDA label. If you intend to purchase live shellfish it is recommended that you reject any clams, mussels and oysters if the shell is cracked or broken. Live shellfish will also close their shell when you tap on them with your finger. Don't buy them or use them if they fail this test! Live lobsters and crabs should show signs that they are truly alive. Such a sign is the movement of their legs.
When you arrive home with your seafood purchase it is important to refrigerate it immediately. Fresh seafood items will keep for up to two days in the refrigerator. If you plan on using it at another time then freezing is recommended. Wrap the items tightly in foil or freezer paper and then store them in the freezer. When you plan on cooking a frozen seafood product you need to thaw it out in the refrigerator or under clean, cold running water. Don't thaw frozen seafood out by leaving it out at room temperature!
Proper cooking of seafood items prevents foodborne illness. Most seafood should be cooked to an internal temperature of 145°F. Every household should invest in a food thermometer. They are available in most retail grocery stores and are relatively inexpensive. If you don't have a thermometer available there are a few things to look for that will tell you the seafood has been properly cooked. The shells of fresh clams, mussels and oysters will open when they're done. Discard any that have closed shells after being cooked. The flesh of shrimp, lobster and scallops turns milky white and is opaque when properly cooked. The flesh of fish also appears opaque and will separate or flake easily when it is done.
Once your meal is finished the leftovers should be promptly refrigerated. It is unsafe to leave cooked seafood unrefrigerated for more than 1 hour. If you have prepared seafood items for a party it is important to keep them refrigerated until just before party time. It is helpful to portion out seafood items into several smaller platters for serving. The platters can be stored in the refrigerator and then if the item is to be served hot you can re-heat it just before your guests begin arriving. You can re-heat platters as the food disappears. Cold seafood dishes should be displayed nestled in a bed of ice.
It is hoped that you and your family enjoy the fine taste and nutrition of the many seafood items we have available today.
(Peter Bilby is a retired health inspector who somehow, has not found the time to retire. Pete divides his time between working part time at the Sussex County Department of Environmental and Public Health Services and serving as an adjunct professor at Sussex County Community College.)