Handling Seafood Safely

Generally, seafood is very safe to eat, but raw or undercooked seafood can be unsafe due to viruses, bacteria or parasites. Here are some steps you can take to keep your seafood safe.

Buying

  • Buy fresh seafood only from reputable dealers who keep their products refrigerated or properly iced.

  • Be aware of possible cross-contamination of cooked and raw seafood if displayed in the same case. Make sure the raw fish is on a level lower or well separated from the cooked fish so that the raw fish juices don't flow onto the cooked items.

  • Never buy dented cans of seafood.

  • Don't buy frozen seafood if the packages are open, torn, or crushed on the edges.

  • Be sure that frozen shellfish is packed in close-fitting, moisture-proof containers.

  • Buy fresh or frozen seafood at the end of your shopping trip so it will not warm in your cart.

  • Go directly home and refrigerate or freeze your seafood immediately. If your trip is longer than 30 minutes, place your seafood in a cooler with ice.

Tips for Selecting Fresh Fish

  • Look for firm, shiny flesh that bounces back when touched.

  • If the head is on, the fish's eyes should be clear and bulge a little.

  • The gills should be bright pink or red with no slime.

  • The fish should smell like a fresh ocean breeze—not "fishy."

  • Scales should be shiny and cling tightly to the skin.

  • Steaks and fillets should be moist with no discoloration.

Tips for Selecting Fresh Shellfish

  • Shells of live clams, mussels, and oysters may gape naturally but will close tightly when tapped, indicating they are alive.

  • Live crabs and lobster will show some leg movement.

  • Freshly shucked scallops and oysters have a fresh odor.

  • A slightly milky or light grey liquid surrounds freshly shucked oysters.

  • Shrimp should have a fresh odor and firm meat.

Storing

  • Store fresh fish in its original wrapper.

  • Avoid crowding in the refrigerator; allow air to circulate freely around the package.

  • If not cooking within 1 to 2 days, wrap seafood tightly in moisture-proof freezer paper or foil to protect it from air leaks and store in the freezer.

  • Live shellfish should be refrigerated in containers covered with clean, damp cloths—not airtight.

  • Discard shellfish, such as lobsters, crabs, oysters, clams, and mussels, if they die during storage or if their shells crack or break. Live shellfish close up when the shell is tapped.

  • Store canned seafood in a cool, dry place for up to one year.

  • Pasteurized products such as crabmeat can be stored up to 6 months in the refrigerator. Once opened, use within 3 to 5 days.

Preparing

  • Wash hands thoroughly with hot soapy water before and after handling any raw seafood.

  • Thaw frozen seafood in the refrigerator, never on the counter. You may also thaw in cold water in an airtight plastic bag, changing the water every 30 minutes. If thawing in the microwave, cook the seafood immediately afterwards.

  • Never refreeze previously frozen seafood.

  • Marinate seafood in the refrigerator, not on the counter. Discard marinade once it has mixed with raw juices. If you want to use the marinade as a dip or sauce, bring to a rolling boil before serving or reserve a portion before adding raw seafood.

  • Keep raw seafood separate from ready-to-eat foods, such as salad ingredients.

  • Never use the same utensils or plates for raw and cooked food.

  • Clean and disinfect surfaces, utensils, and cooking equipment after any contact with raw seafood.

Cooking

Always cook fish thoroughly. Start by using the 10-minute rule. Measure the fish at the thickest point. Cook 10 minutes per inch, turning the fish over at the half-way point. Add 5 minutes if the fish is cooked in foil or sauce. (The 10-minute rule does not apply to deep-frying or microwaving.)

The FDA recommends cooking most seafood to an internal temperature of 145°F for 15 seconds. If you don't have a meat thermometer, here's how to check your seafood:

  • For fish, the flesh should be opaque and flake easily with a fork.

  • Shrimp turns pink and the flesh becomes white and firm. Boiling 1 pound of medium shrimp takes from 3 to 5 minutes.

  • Lobster turns red and the flesh becomes white. When boiling, allow 5 to 6 minutes per pound.

  • Scallops turn milky white and firm. They cook in 3 to 4 minutes.

  • Clams, mussels, and oysters are done when their shells open. Throw out any that stay closed.

  • Shucked clams take from 2 to 5 minutes to cook, depending on size. Oysters cook in about 2 to 3 minutes and their edges will start to curl.

  • When using the microwave, rotate the dish several times to ensure even cooking. Follow manufacturer's recommendations, including standing times.

  • Leftover cooked seafood should be refrigerated as soon as possible and used within 1 or 2 days.

  • If cold or hot seafood has been left out at temperatures between 40°F and 140°F for longer than 2 hours, discard.

Seafood Storage Chart

Type of Seafood

Refrigerator

Freezer

Fresh fish, lean

1–2 days

6 months

Fresh fish, fatty

1–2 days

3 months

Cooked fish

3 days

3 months

Canned fish (removed from can)

3–5 days

3 months

Smoked fish, unpackaged

3–4 days

do not freeze

Smoked fish, packaged

"sell by" date

3 months

Scallops, raw

1–2 days

3 months

Squid, raw

1 day

3 months

Shrimp, raw

1–2 days

6 months

Shrimp, cooked

3–5 days

2 months

Other shellfish, raw

1–2 days

3 months

Of Special Concern

Raw Seafood

To reduce the risks of eating raw seafood, make sure raw clams, mussels, and oysters come from certified waters. If using raw fish for sushi, sashimi, or ceviche, freeze it at 0°F or lower for at least 24 hours (or buy previously frozen) to destroy potential parasites.

People with certain diseases (such as diabetes, liver disease, weakened immune systems, and cancer) should never eat raw seafood because their diseases or the medicine they take may put them at risk for serious illness.

Mercury and Pregnancy

Levels of mercury, which is found in water from naturally occurring sources as well as industrial pollution, tend to be higher in long-lived, larger fish having more dark meat, particularly shark, swordfish, king mackerel, and tilefish. The FDA has advised pregnant women (along with nursing mothers and young children) to avoid eating these types of fish out of concern that mercury in them may harm a baby's developing nervous system. If they choose from a variety of shellfish, canned fish, smaller ocean fish, or farm-raised fish, pregnant women can safely eat 12 ounces per week of cooked fish.

Sources:

  1. Partnership for Food Safety Education — a public-private coalition of industry, government and consumer groups dedicated to educating the public about safe food handling to help reduce food-borne illness.

  2. Food Marketing Institute — a non-profit association conducting programs in research, education, and public affairs on behalf of retailers, wholesalers and consumers.

  3. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition

  4. U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service