Fish is a healthy food because it's a lowfat source of high-quality protein. But contaminants, such as parasites, bacteria and chemical pollutants, are often associated with different types of seafood. Handling fish and shellfish, therefore, calls for a little extra know-how. Millions of people become sick each year from eating meat and poultry contaminated by bacteria such as E. coli and salmonella. All meat and poultry products sold in the United States carry a label with safe handling instructions. Follow these instructions and you'll greatly reduce your risk of exposure to food-borne bacteria and other pathogens.
Many cases of seafood-related illness stem from eating raw shellfish such as oysters, clams and mussels. Occasionally, however, contaminants such as mercury and industrial pollutants are found in other fish. Most problems occur in fish from inland or coastal waters. For those at risk, including pregnant and breastfeeding women, young children and the elderly, fish containing unsafe levels of mercury should be avoided. These fish include swordfish, shark, king mackerel, tilefish and fresh tuna steaks. Fish from deep ocean waters are generally very safe. Here's how to minimize your risk of eating meat or fish:
- Buy your seafood and meat from a store you know and trust.
- Choose fish that are displayed in a single layer over ice.
- Check fish for firmness and a fresh, clean smell; fresh fish shouldn't smell like dead fish.
- The fish's eyes should be bright and clear; gills should be bright pink or red.
- When choosing mollusks in the shell, pick only those that are still alive. Pinch the shells between your thumb and forefinger. If the shells don't move, it's safe.
- Don't buy cooked seafood, such as shrimp, lobster, or smoked fish, if sold in the same case as raw fish. Cross-contamination can occur.
In the kitchen
- Take meat and fish home immediately from the market, and store it in its original wrapper in the coldest part of the refrigerator (usually the lower shelves). Cook it within 2 days of purchase.
- Keep live mollusks in a container covered with a moist cloth, rather than an airtight seal. Don't store in water.
- Trim away dark or gray areas from fatty fish or meat, where toxins tend to collect.
- Thaw frozen seafood or meat in the refrigerator on a plate to catch the juices.
- Wash plates and cutting boards used to prepare raw meat and seafood immediately with soap and hot water to avoid cross-contamination.
- Cook shellfish thoroughly before eating. Discard any clam, mussel or oyster if the shell doesn't open during cooking.
At the table
- If you wish to eat sushi or other raw seafood, stick to reputable restaurants. Don't prepare raw-fish dishes at home.
- Hamburger meat should be thoroughly cooked. The best way to check is with a thermometer; the temperature should be 160°F or higher for ground beef.
- Ground beef can be contaminated throughout the meat, while microbes are more likely to only be on the surface of cuts of meat.
- Carry raw meat to the grill on one plate and use a clean plate to carry it back to the table.
- Wash your hands after handling raw meat and before handling other food.
- Sponges and dish towels can be the most contaminated items in the kitchen. Be careful.
- Marinate meats in a glass dish in the refrigerator, not in metal containers, which can leach from prolonged marinating.
- The Food and Drug Administration recommends cooking most seafood to an internal temperature of 145°F (63°C) for at least 15 seconds.