The Seafood Issue: Safety vs Quality
World Aquaculture, 23(3): 40-41.
William A. Wurts, State Specialist for Aquaculture
Kentucky State University Cooperative Extension Program
P. O. Box 469, Princeton, KY 42445
A Consumer Reports article published in February of this year caused some concern about the safety of seafood in the United States. A casual reader might conclude that the majority of seafood for sale in this country is unsafe to eat.
However, the only solid conclusions that can be drawn from this article are that at several retail outlets in two localized regions of the U.S., a percentage of these fish sold had been improperly handled or inadequately refrigerated and that a small percentage of certain fish species contained levels of pesticide residues, PCBs and mercury that could be considered unsafe. It is unclear from this article that improperly handled seafood is any more or less dangerous than any other high protein food product that has been poorly handled or improperly stored. While there is cause for concern, there is no reason to panic.
The Consumer reports article presented some comprehensive conclusions based on what appear to be limited data. They criticized the limited knowledge that the average grocery store clerk possesses about fish, but they ask us to accept the opinions of their “fish expert” journalist without offering credentials.
Responsible concern should be based on solid scientific data collected from well designed and rigorously controlled research studies conducted by trained scientists. While bacterial counts are good indicators of the degree of product spoilage (i.e. quality), they should not be directly linked with human health hazards (disease). Proper cooking will destroy the bacteria that control both spoilage and disease.
The Consumer Reports article attacked the limited sample size (1604 fish) used by the FDA to check contaminants; yet Consumer Reports has asked the public to accept the credibility of their article based on 113 samples of seafood collected from two select geographical regions. Furthermore, they criticized the FDA for their PCB testing in salmon because most of the domestic samples were taken from the Great Lakes area, but then warned the reader that the Great Lakes region is the hot spot for salmon contaminated with PCBs.
Retailers and other agencies drew heavy criticism from Consumer Reports for their use of generalized and misleading terms, statements and titles about freshness and species identification. The “majority” of fish Consumer Reports sampled contained “measurable” or “detectable” (?) levels of “pesticide residues” or mercury. They (Consumer Reports) spoke of pesticide “residues,” implying across the board toxicity, where commonly found “residues” and concentrations may be non-toxic or insignificant. Today, scientific instrumentation can “detect” infinitesimally small and often insignificant quantities of a given substance. Consumer Reports took issue with the lack of distinction by retailers between quality farm raised salmon and other lesser salmon species; but when discussing Mississippi’s quality catfish processors (farm raised), they made the quantum leap to poor quality “catfish” (wild caught? Domestic or Brazilian? Farm raised?) in retail outlets. The Consumer Reports article quipped: “silver brite [referring to salmon labeling] has more sales appeal than the humble chum [a variety of salmon].”
Consumer Reports also greeted the reader with some stimulating titles:
· Is our fish safe to eat?
· Bacteria by the million
· Snapper snafus
· Salmon shenanigans
A little emotional fervor (sales appeal) to enhance reading interest?
As has been common for several government agencies, the USDA and FDA have been asked to expand regulatory services without an accompanying increase in funding. Most people would agree that it is more important to stop an armed robbery than to hand out parking tickets. Similarly, government regulatory agencies with curtained budgets and limited staff must prioritize and address the more health or life threatening aspects of seafood inspection and regulation. It would be economically devastating and virtually impossible to attempt regulation and inspection of every facet of the seafood industry. The FDA has implemented several pilot programs with seafood using a concept known as HAACP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points). This technique differs according to species, product form, handling and harvest techniques, or the potential hazard.
While certain species have potential to be contaminated they may still be safe to eat. If the consumer wishes to consume a species that has potential for contamination it would be wise to eat the product infrequently (i.e. minimize exposure). The consumer must also decide whether he or she falls into a high risk group (likely to be affected by a potentially contaminated product). It would be unwise for a pregnant woman to eat fish species (salmon, lake whitefish, or swordfish) from certain areas that are likely to be contaminated with PCBs, or for children and pregnant women to eat species potentially contaminated with mercury (swordfish, tuna) or lead (clams).
Some species can become naturally toxic from consuming toxic algae at certain times of the year (filter feeding mollusks such as oysters, clams and mussels, for example); other species are more susceptible to spoilage (scombroid fishes such as mackerel, tuna, bluefish and mahimahi). If the consumer is concerned, these products should be avoided. Certified shellfish are harvested from areas deemed safe or free of food borne toxins and disease producing agents.
Disease-causing bacteria and parasites are typically associated with raw seafood. Therefore, if there is concern, do not eat raw seafood. Raw seafood should not be directly or indirectly (placing in uncleaned containers or areas that previously held raw seafood) mixed with or placed next to other cooked foods. Proper cooking will kill disease producing or spoilage organisms.
Selecting Quality Seafood
It is doubtful that we will eliminate unethical human behavior (e.g., deliberate mislabeling and false advertising) in this century. However, the most effective way to control seafood quality is for the consumer to learn some simple means to identify poor quality seafood products and then vote with their pocketbook. It is unlikely that a shopper would buy a discolored sirloin steak that smells bad, simply because it is bargain priced. If poor quality is suspected and the price seems too good to be true, do not make the purchase.
When shopping for seafood, consumers should closely examine the product, ask questions, and use their senses (eyes, nose, and touch). Fresh fish should have clear, rounded eyes; a shiny or translucent, glistening appearance; sharp or vivid coloration; and be wet-slippery to the touch. Smell the seafood. If there is a foul, offensive or strong ammonia smell, the product is likely to be spoiled. Fresh seafood has a mild, cucumber- or sea-like odor. If you are unsure, examine a live bluegill, bass or crawfish on your next trip to the lake. Buying dressed (eviscerated) fish with the heads on can ensure the product has not been frozen as well as assuring correct species labeling. The eye lens (center of eye) of frozen fish will be cloudy. However, frozen does not imply poor quality – thawed, frozen seafood should not be re-frozen, or texture and quality will suffer. Fillets should be moist, not dry or gaping. Avoid fillets that are stacked and display cases that are warm, dirty or poorly iced. If fillets are single layered, separated from other species and well iced; some care has been taken to preserve quality.
What happens to seafood from the time of purchase to preparation can also adversely affect seafood quality and safety. After you pick up the seafood from the store, you should take it home and refrigerate it immediately. If you anticipate some delay, have the seafood cold-packed (iced if possible) to prevent warming or thawing. Fresh, pasteurized or smoked seafood should be refrigerated at temperatures between 32 and 38 degrees F (0-3ºC; the coldest places in your refrigerator are below the freezer or in the meat drawer). Use these products as soon as possible.
Keep frozen seafood solidly frozen at 0 degrees F (-18ºC) and consume before 6 months have elapsed. Thaw seafood in the refrigerator, allowing 1 to 2 hours for each pound (454 g) of product. Thawing can also be done in the microwave or, if short on time, under cold running water in the original package.
Wash hands, utensils, sponges, and containers before and after handling raw seafood. Use stainless steel, plastic or other non-porous surfaces for seafood preparation – wood can absorb and retain blood and bacteria. Never mix or place cooked foods with raw seafood, or in uncleaned areas that have been exposed to raw seafood, thaw drip or blood. Once cooked, unused portions should be refrigerated within 2 hours.
Before cooking seafood, rinse with cold water to remove surface bacteria. If the recipe calls for marinating, do so in the refrigerator not at room temperature. Including preparation and table time, do not leave seafood out of the refrigerator longer than 2 hours. Properly cooked fish flesh is opaque and flakes easily at the thickest part when probed with a fork – internal temperature should reach 145 degrees F (63ºC).
In closing, it would be unfortunate if the public overreacted to misleading information. This could lead to excessive or inflexible regulation which might put the U.S. seafood industry out of business. Our country already imports approximately 80% of the seafood consumed. Often, foreign countries have limited or no seafood regulation standards, leaving the quality and safety of our seafood imports from these nations poorly controlled.
For more information about seafood inspection, hazards, safety and quality contact: National Fisheries Institute (NFI) Communications: (703) 524-8881.
For related information click on the topics below:
TEMPORARY STORAGE OF FRESH FISH
In, Guidelines for producing food-size channel catfish.
World Aquaculture, 23(1): 70-72.
(pdf) SMALL SCALE, ON-FARM FISH PROCESSING
Southern Regional Aquaculture Center, Publication No. 442.
FDA REQUIRES HACCP PLAN AND TRAINING FOR FISH PROCESSORS AND IMPORTERS
World Aquaculture, 28(3): 62-65.
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