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U.S. Department of Health and Human Services


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Questions and Answers: Buy, Store & Serve Seafood Safely



What fish should pregnant women avoid?

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are advising women who may become pregnant, pregnant women, nursing mothers, and young children to avoid some types of fish and eat fish and shellfish that are lower in mercury.

By following these 3 recommendations for selecting and eating fish or shellfish, women and young children will receive the benefits of eating fish and shellfish and be confident that they have reduced their exposure to the harmful effects of mercury.

  1. Do not eat Shark, Swordfish, King Mackerel, or Tilefish because they contain high levels of mercury.
  2. Eat up to 12 ounces (2 average meals) a week of a variety of fish and shellfish that are lower in mercury.
    • Five of the most commonly eaten fish that are low in mercury are shrimp, canned light tuna, salmon, pollock, and catfish.
    • Another commonly eaten fish, albacore ("white") tuna has more mercury than canned light tuna. So, when choosing your two meals of fish and shellfish, you may eat up to 6 ounces (one average meal) of albacore tuna per week.
  3. Check local advisories about the safety of fish caught by family and friends in your local lakes, rivers, and coastal areas. If no advice is available, eat up to 6 ounces (one average meal) per week of fish you catch from local waters, but don't consume any other fish during that week.

Follow these same recommendations when feeding fish and shellfish to your young child, but serve smaller portions.

Source: Excerpted from What You Need to Know About Mercury in Fish and Shellfish, March 2004


How can you spot a safe seafood seller?

Anyone who's ever smelled rotting seafood at the fish counter has a pretty good idea of what a poorly run seafood market smells like. But the absence of any strong odor doesn't necessarily mean that the seller is practicing safe food handling techniques.

Based on FDA's Food Code, here are some other points to consider:

  • Employees should be in clean clothing but no outerwear and wearing hair coverings.
  • They shouldn't be smoking, eating, or playing with their hair. They shouldn't be sick or have any open wounds.
  • Employees should be wearing disposable gloves when handling food and change gloves after doing nonfood tasks and after handling any raw seafood.
  • Fish should be displayed on a thick bed of fresh, not melting ice, preferably in a case or under some type of cover. Fish should be arranged with the bellies down so that the melting ice drains away from the fish, thus reducing the chances of spoilage.
  • What's your general impression of the facility? Does it look clean? Smell clean? Is it free of flies and bugs? A well-maintained facility can indicate that the vendor is following good sanitation practices.
  • Is the seafood employee knowledgeable about different types of seafood? Can he or she tell you how old the products are and explain why their seafood is fresh? If they can't, you should take your business elsewhere.

Source: Excerpted from FDA Consumer, February 1999: Critical Steps Toward Safer Seafood


How can you figure out if the fish is fresh?

  • The fish's eyes should be clear and bulge a little. Only a few fish, such as walleye, have naturally cloudy eyes.
  • Whole fish and fillets should have firm and shiny flesh. Dull flesh may mean the fish is old. Fresh whole fish also should have bright red gills free from slime.
  • If the flesh doesn't spring back when pressed, the fish isn't fresh.
  • There should be no darkening around the edges of the fish or brown or yellowish discoloration.
  • The fish should smell fresh and mild, not fishy or ammonia-like.

Source: Excerpted from FDA Consumer, February 1999: Critical Steps Toward Safer Seafood


How can you select safe seafood

  • Buy only from reputable sources. Be wary, for example, of vendors selling fish out of the back of their pick-up trucks.
  • Buy only fresh seafood that is refrigerated or properly iced.
  • Don't buy cooked seafood, such as shrimp, crabs or smoked fish, if displayed in the same case as raw fish. Cross-contamination can occur.
  • Don't buy frozen seafood if the packages are open, torn or crushed on the edges. Avoid packages that are above the frost line in the store's freezer. If the package cover is transparent, look for signs of frost or ice crystals. This could mean that the fish has either been stored for a long time or thawed and refrozen.
  • Put seafood on ice, in the refrigerator or in the freezer, immediately after buying it.
  • Recreational fishers who plan to eat their catch should follow state and local government advisories about fishing areas and eating fish from certain areas. 

Source: Excerpted from FDA Consumer, February 1999: Critical Steps Toward Safer Seafood