Raw and undercooked fish and shellfish are popular food choices and can be found on menus in the United States and across the globe. But are these foods safe for everyone to consume?
To reduce the risk of foodborne illness, it is recommended that foods be cooked to their appropriate internal temperature. For most healthy people who choose to eat raw or undercooked seafood, it may only pose a small health risk but for others the risk can be severe. Foodborne illness can result in severe vomiting, diarrhea and abdominal pain, among other symptoms.
Major types of food poisoning that can result from eating raw or undercooked fish and shellfish include Salmonella and Vibrio vulnificus. For raw shellfish connoisseurs, especially raw oyster lovers, you specifically need to know about the risk for Vibrio infections. Vibrio vulnificus is a bacterium that lives in warm seawater. While not as common as some other foodborne illnesses, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates 80,000 illnesses are caused by Vibrio each year.
To reduce your risk of any type of food poisoning, the best rule of thumb is to follow good food safety practices and properly cook all seafood. Prepare fin fish until it reaches 145°F — or until the flesh is opaque and separates easily with a fork; prepare shellfish until the flesh is opaque; or, for clams, oysters, and mussels, until the shells open. Despite popular myths, hot sauce does not kill bacteria, and although alcohol may be used to disinfect some items – it cannot kill certain foodborne bacteria like Vibrio.
One other safety tip of interest: If you do decide to eat raw fish, choose fish that has been previously frozen. That's because freezing will kill any potential parasites present. Unfortunately, freezing doesn't kill every harmful organism.
For people at higher risk for foodborne illness, severe and life-threatening illness may result from consuming raw or undercooked fish and shellfish. These individuals include those with compromised immune systems, as well as pregnant women, children younger than five and adults age 65 and older. Raw fish and shellfish consumption is never advised for high-risk individuals. If you're in this category, thoroughly cook fish and shellfish. If you’re unsure if you are at risk, consult with your physician or registered dietitian nutritionist.
Keeping it Safe from Market to Mealtime
Follow these key tips when buying, storing and preparing fresh, raw seafood.
At the market:
- Be sure fresh seafood is properly refrigerated at or below 40°F or well-packed with ice.
- Look for fish with shiny, firm flesh and no overly "fishy" odor.
In your fridge:
- Keep fresh fish well wrapped or in air-tight containers for no more than two days, otherwise consider freezing it.
- Store fresh or smoked seafood at or below 40°F; store live clams, crabs, crayfish, lobsters, mussels and oysters in well ventilated containers.
- Keep raw and cooked seafood separate, including using separate cutting boards and utensils.
- Wash hands, cutting boards, plates and utensils thoroughly between handling raw seafood and any ready-to-eat food.
Dining Out Advice
There are a plethora of well-liked raw and undercooked fish and shellfish items on menus today. For healthy individuals who choose to consume these foods, make sure they're from reputable restaurants or markets that use fresh, high-quality ingredients and follow proper food safety practices. But be aware of these menu items, especially if you’re in the high-risk category, since they contain raw or undercooked seafood: sushi, sashimi, raw oysters or clams on the half shell, ceviche, crudo, gravlax, poke, tuna tartare and tuna carpaccio.
The Bottom Line
Properly cooked fish and shellfish offer a variety of nutrients that benefit our health. However, there’s an increased risk with raw fish and shellfish. Be aware of food safety considerations when eating it. And if you're a high-risk individual, simply do not eat raw seafood.