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Houston Department of Health and Human Services > Food Inspection and Safety (Consumer Health) > Food Safety Tips > Is Your Seafood Safe?

Is Your Seafood Safe?    

Summertime is right for seafood: when the weather is hot, what could be better than a chilled seafood cocktail or oysters on the half shell? But before you serve or eat any type of seafood -- raw or cooked -- make sure that it's safe to eat.

Seafood consumption in the United States has risen 25 percent since 1985, mostly due to the fact that in today's health-conscious society, seafood is a low-fat, low-cholesterol source of protein. At the same time, foodborne illnesses resulting directly from seafood have risen alarmingly. It is important to know the hazards and safety tips of preparing and serving all types of seafood.

Eating raw seafood, including sushi and certain types of shellfish, is one of the leading causes of foodborne illnesses. Worms and parasites can be found in fish such as mackerel, haddock, herring, cod and Pacific salmon. Sushi in particular can be hazardous if it is not prepared properly by trained chefs who are able to detect worms in fish slivers.

Shellfish pose one of the greatest health risks due to the vibrio pathogens found in some types of oysters, clams and mussels. If eaten raw or partially cooked, shellfish carrying undetected pathogens can cause hepatitis-A. There is no way to remove vibrio from raw shellfish (including the myth of dipping raw oysters in hot sauce to kill bacteria).

The vibrio bacteria can also cause a cholera-type illness called "vibrio-cholerae," which is especially dangerous to persons with any type of immune-deficiency condition. Caution should be exercised serving any type of raw or cooked shellfish to the elderly, children, pregnant women or persons with immune system disorders.

Most people think that eating cooked seafood will carry less of a health risk than raw seafood; this assumption is erroneous. Certain types of ocean fish carry ciguatoxin, a poison found in reefs and algae that is ingested by the fish. If the fish are not kept properly frozen, the toxin will remain in the fish and cannot be killed by any means of cooking.

Ciguatoxin can lead to scombroid poisoning, which attacks the gastrointestinal tract and takes on symptoms similar to a flu virus -- yet it is much more difficult to treat. Some of the types of fish known to carry ciguatoxin include snapper, grouper, barracuda, mahi-mahi and amberjack.

Nouveau cuisine is especially risky in terms of foodborne illnesses. The trendy "pan-seared" fish is a potential source of parasites. Searing cooks the outside, but sometimes leaves the inside of the fish virtually raw, leaving pathogens unaffected.

Another trendy food item is "ceviche", which is South American raw seafood served in a lime juice. A common misconception is that the acidity in the lime juice rids the fish of bacteria. Untrue, according to parasitologists. The lime juice will not kill any type of parasites in fish; if at most, the juice will make the worms taste better.

How do you make sure that the seafood will not produce any foodborne illness? Follow these cooking tips for best results:

Fish (freshwater or saltwater):

Heat to 450 degrees for each inch of thickness for 10-13 minutes. The meat should flake with a fork when done.

(Make sure the internal temperature is at least 140 degrees when fully cooked.)


Boiling -- Discard shellfish that do not open during cooking.

Steaming -- Cook in small pots to ensure even cooking.

Baking -- Bake at 450 degrees for at least 10 minutes.

Frying -- Fry in oil at 375 degrees for at least 10 minutes.

For food safety, make sure that you purchase your fish and shellfish from approved sources. It is recommended to keep fresh seafood below 35 degrees Fahrenheit. Frozen seafood should be stored at zero (0) degrees Fahrenheit.

Above all else, don't forget the wise words of the Old Man of the Sea: "Keep it cold, keep it hot, keep it clean and keep it moving until it hits the pan."

For this and any other food safety related information, please contact the Houston Department of Health and Human Services at 713/794-9200.    

Contact the HDHHS Bureau of Consumer Health Services