Preventing Food Poisoning: Seafood Safety
Right alongside hot dogs and hamburgers, summer is just not complete without a cookout complete with crabs, clams, mussels and lobster. And unlike BBQs chock-full of red meat, a summer dinner of fish and shellfish can easily be low in saturated and trans-fat and also high in omega-3 fatty acids—all qualities that make for a heart-healthy meal.
But for any type of seafood, freshness counts. Because fish and shellfish are caught at sea, they often have to be transported long distances in ships well before proper refrigeration can be found. Often, they are stored on ice inside the ship. However, if a fish is out in the sun too long, it can develop a toxin, such as scombrotoxin or histamine, which can cause illness if eaten.
So, knowing how to determine the freshness of fish and shellfish is key for keeping you and your family healthy. Here are some tips to take with you when picking fresh fish in your local market.
- Look around. Even before looking at the fish, make sure that the store is clean and that the employees seem to be washing their hands and equipment frequently. Also, make sure all of the seafood is stored on thick bed of ice or in a covered refrigerator
- Use your nose. Fresh fish should never smell fishy. It should have a mild, fresh smell.
- Check out its eyes. Most breeds of fish should have eyes that are totally clear. Cloudy eyes or those that are sunken in are signs that a fish has been on display too long.
- Feel the flesh. If you press down on the fish, the flesh should spring back into place. Unless the fillet was frozen previously and thawed, both whole fish and pre-cut fillets should be firm and shiny. Any dullness to the flesh can be a sign that the fish is old.
As for shellfish, the Food and Drug Administration requires shellfish harvesters and processors of oysters, clams and mussels to label sacks or containers of live or shucked shellfish with information about where they were caught and when. "[The labels] mean that the shellfish were harvested in accordance with national shellfish safety controls," writes the FDA on its website. Be sure to look for these tags when purchasing shellfish.
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Additionally, the FDA will issue health warnings if shellfish harvested in a particular area may not be safe to eat. Be sure to check for these warnings before going clam digging or buying local shellfish.
Otherwise, follow these rules for handling shellfish:
- Toss the broken shells. If you find a clam, oyster or mussel with a cracked or broken shell, toss it. It is likely to be dead and may be contaminated.
- Tap the shell. All shellfish should be cooked alive, and live clams, oysters and mussels will close up if you tap on their shell. If one does not respond to this test, throw it away.
- Check for leg movement. Crabs and lobsters also should be cooked alive, and when these creatures are alive, they will have some leg movement. Also, when buying them, be sure that they have been stored in large salt-water tanks.
If you're not eating your seafood right away, you can store it safely in the refrigerator or on ice for up to two days. Be aware that lobsters and crabs will not survive in your refrigerator and should only be bought and cooked right away. If your summer seafood fest is a little longer off, fish can be stored in the freezer.