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Seriously Seafood: What Our Experts Want You to Know for Your Next Shopping Trip

Your shopping habits can help support fishing communities around the world — and protect the planet. Our experts help you make better seafood choices.

These days it seems everyone is seeking a healthy diet. That’s where salmon, shellfish and other seafood come in because they contain high-quality protein and other essential nutrients. A well-balanced diet that includes a variety of fish and shellfish may even contribute to heart health and boost children’s proper growth and development. Health enthusiasts also claim that fish combined with a balanced diet of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and low-fat dairy can promote bone health, help you maintain a healthy weight, and decrease the risk of colon and rectal cancers.

But as good for you as it may be, fresh seafood does not come without risks, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The FDA is responsible for making certain that the nation’s seafood supply, both domestic and imported, is safe, sanitary, wholesome and honestly labeled.

In response to the growing demand for labeling, food businesses ranging from grocery stores to quick-service restaurants have begun mandating that companies hold sustainable seafood certifications. With a mission to improve human and planet health, NSF experts work closely with the FDA to certify and measure seafood producers against globally recognized industry standards to ensure that their seafood is sustainable and healthy. Our experts are also a go-to resource for staying up to date with new requirements.

“We are here to help grocery stores, restaurants and seafood distributors provide a higher level of expertise and knowledge to their seafood buyers, fishmongers or seafood inspectors,” said Tom White, Manager, Supply Chain Food Safety - Seafood Operations, for NSF.

NSF certifications help ensure that:

  • Seafood is responsibly farmed
  • Wild-caught seafood meets the needs of consumers and suppliers
  • Companies play their part in restoring the health of oceans around the world

For consumers, NSF offers safe handling tips for buying, preparing and storing fish and shellfish, so that families can enjoy the great taste and nutritional benefits of seafood.

Eight Tips To Prevent Foodborne Illness When You Are Shopping for or Cooking Fish

  • Be Chill

    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).
  • Fresh First

    Fish should smell fresh and mild, not fishy, sour or ammonia-like. Caveat: Some fish, such as mackerel or sardines, have a strong, oily smell even when they are fresh. It also depends on size — whether it’s a whole fish or fillets or portions. For a whole fish, you look at three indicators: eyes, gills and skin elasticity. Shrimp is far different from finfish, and white fish is much different from salmon. A sour or ammonia-like odor may signal that fish are already decomposing, but it’s the marginal cases that consumers need to be the most cautious of. Smells like yogurt, cheese, dirty socks, and the fresh scent of pine or cherry (used to mask bad fish) are also important to note, as they can indicate, “Don’t buy.”
  • Marked Up

    Some refrigerated seafood may have time and temperature labels on its packaging, showing if the product has been stored properly. Always check these labels when they are present, and only buy seafood that is not outdated.
  • 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.
  • Frozen Facts

    Frozen seafood can spoil if the fish thaws during transport and is left at warm temperatures for too long before cooking. Keep this in mind:

    • 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 been thawed and refrozen.
    • Avoid packages in which the “frozen” fish flesh is not firm or hardened from freezing.
    • The key factor for frozen fish is to always follow the instructions on the package for defrosting it if you’re going to do that before you cook it.
    • Vacuum-packed frozen seafood items, no matter what they are, should always be thawed in the refrigerator at a temperature of 38°F (3°C) or below to prevent the possibility of botulism forming.
  • Create a Distance Zone

    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 the raw product by dividers.
    • Wash your hands, scrubbing for at least 20 seconds, after handling any raw food.
    • Wash cutting boards, dishes, utensils and countertops with soap and hot water between preparing raw foods, such as seafood, and preparing 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 5 tablespoons (1/3 cup) bleach per gallon of water or 4 teaspoons bleach per quart of water, with a one-minute contact time. Rinse thoroughly and allow to air-dry. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions for all disinfection products for the amount of product to mix with water, how to apply, contact time, and rinsing and drying requirements. If you use plastic or other nonporous cutting boards, run them, along with plastic, metal or ceramic utensils, through the dishwasher after use.
  • Thaw Out

    Unless the package tells you to cook the fish from frozen, it should be thawed gradually by placing it in the refrigerator overnight. If you must thaw seafood quickly, either seal it in a plastic bag and immerse it in cold water or — if the food will be cooked immediately afterward — microwave it on the “defrost” setting and stop the defrost cycle while the fish is still icy but flexible.
  • Get Cooked

    Most seafood should be cooked to an internal temperature of 145°F (62°C). If you don’t have a food thermometer, there are other ways to determine whether seafood is ready to eat.

    • Fish: The fish separates with a fork and is flaky.
    • Shrimp, scallops, crab and lobster: The flesh becomes firm and opaque (white-looking).
    • Clams, mussels and oysters: The shells open during cooking — throw out any that don’t open.
    • Remember that if it smells sour, rotten, fishy or ammonia-like, do not eat the fish. These odors become stronger after cooking.

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