Seafood Safety & Handling
For easy-to-understand science-based facts to help you make smart sustainable seafood choices, NOAA FishWatch provides information about U.S. seafood that is responsibly harvested under strict regulations that work to keep the environment healthy, fish populations thriving, and our seafood industry on the job.
Thawing It Safely: Thaw frozen seafood gradually by placing it in the refrigerator overnight. If you have to thaw seafood quickly, either seal it in a plastic bag and immerse it in cold water, or if the food will be cooked immediately thereafter, microwave it on the "defrost" setting and stop the defrost cycle while the fish is still icy but pliable.
Preventing Cross-Contamination: When you're preparing fresh or thawed seafood, it's important to prevent bacteria from the raw seafood from spreading to ready-to-eat food.
Take these steps to avoid cross-contamination between raw and cooked foods:
- Wash hands thoroughly with soap and warm water before and after handling any raw food.
- Wash the cutting board with soap and hot water to remove food particles and juices after using it for raw foods such as seafood, and before using the board for cooked or ready-to-eat foods or preparing another food item. Boards made of hard maple or plastic are best.
- Thaw frozen seafood in the refrigerator, under cold running water or in the microwave oven following the manufacturer's guidelines.
- Always marinate fish and shellfish in the refrigerator, never at room temperature. Discard the marinade after use.
- Make sure that juices from raw seafood don't drip onto cooked foods; this leads to cross-contamination.
Most seafood should be cooked to an internal temperature of 145 °F. But, if you don't have a food thermometer, there are other ways to determine whether seafood is done.
- Fish: Slip the point of a sharp knife into the flesh and pull it aside. The flesh should be opaque and separate easily. If you cooked the fish in the microwave, check it in more than one spot to help ensure it is completely cooked throughout.
- Shrimp and Lobster: The flesh becomes pearly-opaque.
- Scallops: The flesh turns milky white or opaque and firm.
- Clams and Oysters: Watch for the point at which their shells open, which means they're done. Throw out the ones that don't open.
Don't Cross-Contaminate: Cross-contamination can happen once your seafood is cooked, too. Here are simple ways to keep your seafood safe when serving:
- Place cooked seafood on a clean plate for serving. If cooked foods are placed on an unwashed plate that previously held raw seafood, bacteria from the raw food could contaminate the cooked seafood.
- Use clean utensils to serve food - not those used in preparation of the raw food.
- Picnic Tip: A Clean Cooler Is Critical. Be sure to clean coolers with hot soapy water before packing cooked seafood. Cleaning is especially important if the cooler was previously used to transport raw seafood. A clean cooler prevents harmful bacteria from the raw fish from contaminating cooked seafood or other foods.
Follow these serving guidelines once your seafood is cooked and ready to be enjoyed:
- Never leave seafood or other perishable food out of the refrigerator for more than 2 hours (or, for more than 1 hour when temperatures are above 90 °F). Bacteria that can cause illness grow quickly at warm temperatures (temperatures between 40 °F and 140 °F).
- Carry picnic seafood in a cooler with a cold pack or ice. When possible, put the cooler in the shade. Keep the lid closed for as much of the time as you can.
- When it's party time, keep hot seafood hot and cold seafood cold. Divide hot dishes containing seafood into smaller serving platters. Keep platters refrigerated until time to reheat them for serving. Keep cold seafood on ice or serve it throughout the gathering from platters kept in the refrigerator or freezer.
Eating it Raw
It's always best to cook seafood thoroughly to minimize the risk of foodborne illness. However, if you choose to eat raw fish anyway, one rule of thumb is to eat fish that has been previously frozen. Some species of fish can contain parasites, and freezing will kill any parasites that may be present. However, be aware that freezing doesn't kill all harmful microorganisms. That's why the safest route is to cook your seafood.
An Important Note About Oysters: While not a serious threat to healthy individuals, serious illness and death can result when at-risk individuals consume raw oysters. The health conditions that place individuals in the at-risk consumer category include:
- Liver Disease (from hepatitis, cirrhosis, alcoholism, or cancer)
- Iron overload disease (hemochromatosis)
- Cancer (including lymphoma, leukemia, Hodgkin’s disease)
- Stomach Disorders
- Or any illness or medical condition that weakens the body’s immune system*
If you are in an At-Risk category or are unsure about your risks, you can reduce the risk of illness by eating oysters that have been post-harvest processed or eliminate the risk of illness by eating oysters fully cooked.
Important Health Notes
Keep in mind that some people are at greater risk for foodborne illness, and should not eat raw or partially cooked fish or shellfish. If you are unsure of your risk, ask your healthcare provider.
Sources: NOAA, Charlestonseafood.com, BeOysterAware.com