The Covid-19 crisis is enabling all governments and businesses to take stock on where they are, determining what is working and how they can consider changes to make them better into the future.
Handling seafood, wherever you are in the value chain, needs thought, planning and training yet sadly our industry continues to play ‘Russian roulette’ in many areas. Our environment is constantly changing, our processes are also impacting change and research is constantly bringing up new issues. Food safety is not an area where you can relax.
Constantly whenever the Fishmonger raises such issues with industry members the defence is ‘we have been in the industry a long time and have never had a problem.’ What they fail to recognise is that they are not keeping up with trends and training their staff on the latest knowledge and information relating to food safety to ensure the consumer is getting the safest product.
Just this week The Fishmonger saw a promotion for ‘sensational sashimi-grade Scallops’ and pointed out to the seafood operator that there was no such thing as ‘sashimi-grade’ and would be happy if the operator could direct The Fishmonger to the ‘sashimi-grade standard’.
The reply was “In actual fact the term sashimi grade is used to refer to fish that has been judged to be eaten raw and these scallops can certainly be eaten raw. In fact, they are best when eaten raw. Sashimi fish is largely determined by its level of freshness. Ready to eat raw products (sushi & sashimi) demand seafood of high quality and are determined by handling & storage methods & cold chain management. When you have combined knowledge of seafood of more than 100 years as our Directors have, you certainly know when seafood is of quality that can be eaten raw. “
Mmm…. the Directors could have 500 years of seafood knowledge, but they have no qualifications and what is more important is that their staff know the important processes that need to be adhered to. It can be risky to guarantee ‘sashimi’ unless you have documentation to prove the cold chain management.
What must be pointed out here is that this product was wild caught in a remote area and had to travel over 3000 kilometres to market so there would have been logistical issues making it difficult to maintain quality and temperature. Let us not forget that ready-to-eat sushi/sashimi is regarded as a potentially hazardous food. As such, there are requirements for food businesses to maintain the temperature (in Australia it is either at or below 5˚C during transport, storage, and display). The onus is on the supply chain to maintain and prove that, in the case of any issue.
Additionally, one of the latest issues is that there is evidence that seafood parasitic illness is increasing around the world. With an eating trend being eating raw, marinated, cured seafood we need to take a moment and consider the consequences.
This increase could be due to the increasing numbers of sea mammals such as seals, whales and dolphins who can carry the parasite and contaminate fish. Some fish consume the parasites directly from infected species, whereas others, e.g. predatory species obtain them from the fish they eat. Also, fishing boats that gut the fish at sea then throw the waste into the ocean where other fish and crustaceans can eat it can lead to more local contamination and infected fish.
There are several seafood parasites capable of causing illness in people. The parasite of most concern is that which causes Anisakiasis. The adult anisakid worm has not been shown to cause illness, it is the larval stage that is the problem. Research has shown that this worm is present in oceans worldwide.
Why has this suddenly become a problem? Partly it is due to changes in our dietary habits. Raw seafood dishes such as sushi, sashimi, ceviche (also cebiche, seviche, or sebiche), gravlax and cold smoked salmon are extremely popular and that increases our risk of exposure. The trend now is to undercook fish or squid which can, unfortunately, lead to survival of the anisakid and other parasites.
Parasite infection symptoms can include stomach-ache, vomiting, diarrhoea, as well as allergic type reactions such as tingling tongue, cough, a strange rash, heart palpitations or even anaphylactic shock. Symptoms can occur within six hours or up to a week after consumption, although, allergic symptoms can occasionally be immediate. Some of these symptoms may be prolonged or become chronic until the parasite is physically evicted from the body or an appropriate treatment is prescribed by your doctor.
The strong advice to any recreational fisher who prepares raw fish dishes from their own catch is to avoid this at all costs. It is best to cook any recreational fish but, if you are intent, on consuming raw then the best advice is freezing the fish for a minimum of seven days (longer for large fish) as this will kill parasites. Remember that freezing will not kill food poisoning bacteria or viruses or prevent allergic reactions from parasites.
Ideally source good quality fish from a reputable supplier that can identify the species, whether wild captured or farmed and the area it was harvested and when it was harvested so you know the type of fish you are buying and have knowledge on harvesting.
Before preparing the raw fish wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds and dry thoroughly. Make sure all utensils and chopping boards are thoroughly washed in warm soapy water and dried. Take particular care to clean bamboo rolling mats for sushi, they should be scrubbed using a brush with soap under hot water to remove any food residue and left to dry thoroughly.
Remember that sushi rice can also be a food poisoning risk as toxins can form if it cools slowly. Follow sushi recipes carefully, especially the amount of vinegar to be added, and when cooked divide the rice into small containers, cover and cool in the fridge.
It has long been advice that pregnant women, the elderly and people with poor immune systems should not eat raw fish dishes and cold cooked prawns because of the potentially fatal risk of the food poisoning bacteria. This applies whether the raw fish dishes are bought commercially or prepared at home. A safer alternative for these groups is to cook any fish or seafood to at least 63C in the centre using a thermometer.
Safety ‘Folklore’ that needs to be addressed is that vinegar, lemon juice or salt will not kill the infectious stages of parasites. Some of the more robust parasites survive quite well for several days in the presence of acids and levels of salt below 10%.
The advantage that aquaculture farmed product has is that it can avoid all the parasite issues and generally can meet market expectations of being cold chain guaranteed.