Fish and shellfish are an important part of a healthy diet because they contain high-quality protein and other essential nutrients. In fact, a well-balanced diet that includes a variety of fish and seafood can contribute to heart health and the growth and development of children.
As with any food, it’s important to handle seafood safely to avoid foodborne illness, sometimes called food poisoning. Follow these safe handling tips for buying, preparing, and storing fish and shellfish – and you and your family can safely enjoy the fine taste and good nutrition of seafood.
Safety Tips When Shopping for Seafood
Buying 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).
- 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, so color alone is not an indicator of freshness.
- 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 a time/temperature indicator on its packaging. The indicator shows whether 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.
- 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.
Purchasing Frozen Seafood
- 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.
How to Store Seafood Properly
Keep Fish and Shellfish Cold
- Put seafood on ice or in the refrigerator or freezer within two hours after buying it (one hour if it is exposed to a temperature of 90°F (32°C) or more, such as in a car parked in the sun). If seafood will be used within 2 days after purchase, store it in a clean refrigerator at a temperature of 40°F (4°C) 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 Seafood for Safety
When preparing fresh or thawed seafood, it’s important to make sure bacteria from raw seafood doesn’t spread 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 water after handling any raw food.
- Wash cutting boards, dishes, utensils, and countertops 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 countertops 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, wash them, along with plastic, metal, or ceramic utensils, in the dishwasher after use.
Steps to Safely Prepare Seafood
- 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 (changing the water every 30 minutes), 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 flexible.
Most seafood should be cooked to an internal temperature of 145°F (63°C). If you don’t have a food thermometer, there are other ways to determine whether seafood is done.
Fish: The flesh is opaque and separates easily with a fork
Shrimp, Scallops, Crab, and Lobster: The flesh becomes firm and clear
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 if exposed to temperatures above 90°F (32°C). Bacteria that can cause illness grow quickly at temperatures between 40°F (4°C) and 140°F (60°C).
- 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.