Be savvy when it comes to seafood safety

August 09, 2006|by LYNN F. LITTLE

The variety of seafood on the market today, coupled with fish's potential nutritional benefits promoted by nutrition experts, have increased the number of consumers incorporating seafood into their diets.

Fresh seafood is readily available for purchase in many local grocery stores and markets. It is important to know how to select, store and prepare seafood safely.

Although many state and federal agencies, as well as food processors and distributors, work diligently to ensure that seafood sold in the U.S. is safe, it is still important for consumers to take an active role in seafood safety from purchase to preparation. Follow the following guidelines and become savvy about seafood safety.

Purchasing tips

· Always buy seafood from a reputable source. For example, be wary of vendors selling fish from a pickup truck. Ask to see the certified product tags if you have concerns.


· Avoid shark, swordfish, king mackerel or tilefish if you are serving pregnant women, nursing moms or young children. These large fish are known to contain high levels of mercury that might be damaging to the developing baby's nervous system. Commonly eaten fish known to be low in mercury include shrimp, canned light tuna, salmon, pollock and catfish. You can locate more information about mercury levels in fish and shellfish at

· Do not buy cooked seafood if it is displayed in the same case next to raw fish. Cross-contamination can occur.

· Fresh fish should have a mild ocean breeze smell, rather than an unpleasant fishy smell.

· The eyes of fresh whole fish should be clear and bulge slightly. Scales should not be slimy and should cling to the fish's skin. Gills should be bright pink or red and also should be free of slime.

· Fresh fish steaks and fillets should be moist, with no drying or darkening around the edges of the fish.

· When purchasing fresh, whole shellfish, make sure they are alive. Clams, oysters and mussels that are alive will have tightly closed shells or will tightly close their shells when tapped. Lobsters, crabs and crayfish move their legs when alive.

Storage ideas

· Store fresh fish or seafood in the coldest part of your refrigerator in airtight containers or plastic wrap and use within two days of purchase. If this is not possible, wrap in freezer paper or foil and freeze for later use.

· Store live shellfish, lobsters and crabs in containers covered loosely with a clean, damp cloth.

· Discard shellfish, such as lobsters, crabs, oysters, clams and mussels, if they die during storage or if their shells crack or break.

Keys to preparation

· To avoid cross-contamination, always keep raw seafood and cooked seafood separate when preparing.

· Marinate seafood in the refrigerator, not on the counter. Discard leftover marinade.

· Cook seafood to an internal temperature of 145 degrees. Use a food thermometer to monitor temperature.

· Wash and sanitize all items that come in contact with raw seafood products before using with other foods.

For more information about seafood safety, contact the U.S. Food and Drug Administration at 1-888-SAFEFOOD or go to

Lynn F. Little is a family and consumer sciences educator with Maryland Cooperative Extension in Washington County.

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