The purpose of this article is not to discourage you from eating fish. It is intended as a guide to help you select and prepare fish that are low in chemical pollutants. By following these recommendations, you and your family can continue to enjoy the benefits of eating fish.
Eating and Serving Seafood Safely
Fish are an important part of a healthy diet. They are a lean, low-calorie source of protein. Some sport fish caught in the nation’s lakes, rivers, oceans, and estuaries, however, may contain chemicals that could pose health risks if these fish are eaten in large amounts.
Nutritional value of fish and the Dietary Guidelines for Americans
Seafood, which includes fish and shellfish, is part of the healthy eating patterns described in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Eating seafood offers heart health benefits. Eating seafood when pregnant or breastfeeding is related to better health outcomes for the mother’s baby.
Seafood, as part of a healthy eating pattern, provides:
- Healthy omega-3 fats(called DHA and EPA)
- More vitamin B12 and vitamin D than any other type of food
- Iron which is important for infants, young children, and women who are pregnant or who could become pregnant
- Seafood is a source of other minerals like selenium, zinc, and iodine.
A Clean Cooler Is Critical. Be sure to clean coolers with hot soapy water before packing cooked seafood. Cleaning is especially important if the cooler was previously used to transport raw seafood. If the cooler has been used to transport raw seafood, it is important to sanitize the interior after cleaning using a kitchen sanitizer. A clean cooler prevents harmful bacteria from the raw fish from contaminating cooked seafood or other foods.
Keep Chilled Until Serving. Carry picnic seafood in a cooler with cold packs or ice. When possible, put the cooler in the shade and keep the lid closed as much of the time as you can.
Buy Right Fresh Fish and Shrimp
Only buy fish that is refrigerated or displayed on a thick bed of fresh ice (preferably in a case or under some type of cover). Because the color of a fish can be affected by several factors including diet, environment, treatment with a color fixative such as carbon monoxide or other packaging processes, color alone is not an indicator of freshness. The following tips can help you when making purchasing decisions:
- Fish should smell fresh and mild, not fishy, sour, or ammonia-like.
- A fish’s eyes should be clear and shiny.
- Whole fish should have firm flesh and red gills with no odor. Fresh fillets should have firm flesh and red blood lines, or red flesh if fresh tuna. The flesh should spring back when pressed.
- Fish fillets should display no discoloration, darkening, or drying around the edges.
- Shrimp, scallop, and lobster flesh should be clear with a pearl-like color and little or no odor.
- Some refrigerated seafood may have time/temperature indicators on their packaging, which show if the product has been stored at the proper temperature. Always check the indicators when they are present and only buy the seafood if the indicator shows that the product is safe to eat.
- Fresh fish and fish fillets sold as “Previously Frozen” may not have all the characteristics of fresh fish (e.g., bright eyes, firm flesh, red gills, flesh, or bloodlines), however, they should still smell fresh and mild, not fishy, sour, or rancid.
Follow these general guidelines for safely selecting shellfish:
- Look for the label: Look for tags on sacks or containers of live shellfish (in the shell) and labels on containers or packages of shucked shellfish. These tags and labels contain specific information about the product, including the processor’s certification number. This means that the shellfish were harvested and processed in accordance with national shellfish safety controls.
- Discard Cracked/Broken Ones: Throw away clams, oysters, and mussels if their shells are cracked or broken.
- Do a “Tap Test”: Live clams, oysters, and mussels will close when the shell is tapped. If they don’t close when tapped, do not select them.
- Check for Leg Movement: Live crabs and lobsters should show some leg movement. They spoil rapidly after death, so only live crabs and lobsters should be selected and prepared.
Frozen seafood can spoil if the fish thaws during transport and is left at warm temperatures for too long before cooking.
- Don’t buy frozen seafood if its package is open, torn, or crushed on the edges.
- Avoid packages with signs of frost or ice crystals, which may mean the fish has been stored a long time or thawed and refrozen.
- Avoid packages where the “frozen” fish flesh is not hard. The fish should not be bendable.
Put seafood on ice or in the refrigerator or freezer soon after buying it. If seafood will be used within 2 days after purchase, store it in a clean refrigerator at a temperature of 40°F or below. Use a refrigerator thermometer to check! Otherwise, wrap it tightly in plastic, foil, or moisture-proof paper and store it in the freezer.
Separate for Safety
When preparing fresh or thawed seafood, it’s important to prevent bacteria from raw seafood from spreading to ready-to-eat foods. Take these steps to avoid cross-contamination:
- When buying unpackaged cooked seafood, make sure it is physically separated from raw seafood. It should be in its own display case or separated from raw product by dividers.
- Wash your hands for at least 20 seconds with soap and warm water after handling any raw food.
- Wash cutting boards, dishes, utensils, and counter tops with soap and hot water between the preparation of raw foods, such as seafood, and the preparation of cooked or ready-to-eat foods.
- For added protection, kitchen sanitizers can be used on cutting boards and counter tops after use. Or use a solution of one tablespoon of unscented, liquid chlorine bleach per gallon of water.
- If you use plastic or other non-porous cutting boards, run them, along with plastic, metal, or ceramic utensils through the dishwasher after use.
Prepare Seafood Safely
Thaw frozen seafood gradually by placing it in the refrigerator overnight. If you have to thaw seafood quickly, either seal it in a plastic bag and immerse it in cold water, or — if the food will be cooked immediately thereafter — microwave it on the “defrost” setting and stop the defrost cycle while the fish is still icy but pliable.
Most seafood should be cooked to an internal temperature of 145°F. If you don’t have a food thermometer, there are other ways to determine whether seafood is done.
- Fish: The flesh is clear and separates easily with a fork
- Shrimp, Scallops, Crab, and Lobster: The flesh becomes firm and opaque
- Clams, Mussels, and Oysters: The shells open during cooking — throw out ones that don’t open
Uncooked spoiled seafood can have sour, rancid, fishy, or ammonia odors. These odors become stronger after cooking. If you smell sour, rancid, or fishy odors in raw or cooked seafood, do not eat it. If you smell either a fleeting or persistent ammonia odor in cooked seafood, do not eat it.
Follow these serving guidelines once your seafood is cooked and ready to be enjoyed.
- Never leave seafood or other perishable food out of the refrigerator for more than 2 hours or for more than 1 hour when temperatures are above 90°F. Bacteria that can cause illness grow quickly at warm temperatures (between 40°F and 140°F).
- For party planning, keep hot seafood hot and cold seafood cold:
- Keep cold chilled seafood refrigerated until time to serve.
- Serve cold seafood on ice if it is going to stay out longer than 2 hours.
- Keep hot seafood heated until time to serve or divide the seafood into smaller containers and keep them in a refrigerator until time to reheat and serve.
- Serve hot seafood under a heat source (e.g., hot lamp, crock pot, hot plate, etc.) if it is going to stay out longer than 2 hours or discard the seafood after 2 hours.
Eating Raw Seafood - What You Need To Know
It's always best to cook seafood thoroughly to minimize the risk of foodborne illness. However, if you choose to eat raw fish anyway, one rule of thumb is to eat fish that has been previously frozen.
- Some species of fish can contain parasites, and freezing will kill any parasites that may be present.
- However, be aware that freezing doesn't kill all harmful germs. That's why the safest route is to cook your seafood.
Video: Enjoy Fresh and Frozen Seafood
Information and Resources
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Download a quick overview for staying healthy and free from food poisoning when getting takeout, delivery or dining out. A reference guide of invaluable information on meal prep, shopping, and storage lists of DOS and DON’TS food safety from the grocery cart to the refrigerator
FoodSafety.gov Charts: Food Safety at a Glance
How long can you store leftovers in the refrigerator? How can you tell when chicken breasts are done? How long does it take to cook a turkey? Check out these charts for fast answers.
Storing Food Charts
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Preparing and Cooking Food
One of the basics of food safety is cooking food to its proper temperature. Foods are properly cooked when they are heated for a long enough time and at a high enough temperature to kill the harmful bacteria that cause foodborne illness.
FoodSafety.gov: FoodKeeper App
The FoodKeeper helps you understand food and beverages storage. It will help you maximize the freshness and quality of items. By doing so you will be able to keep items fresh longer than if they were not stored properly. It is also available as a mobile application for devices, Android and Apple.
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