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Don’t catch anything - consumer tips for handling fish

02/2014, 15.01.2014

As part of International Green Week 2014, the BfR provides information on fish and sea food, their health benefits and rules of hygiene

Fish contains numerous beneficial components which are important for our nutrition. However, fish and mussels are also sensitive foods. "Consumers should ensure hygienically correct storage and preparation to avoid contracting food-borne infections", advises BfR President Professor Dr Dr Andreas Hensel. At its Booth 143 in Hall 3.2 (Farm Experience) of the International Green Week taking place from 17 to 26 January 2014, the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) will use real fish and other sea food to show consumers how to tell that fish is fresh, what nutrients fish contains and what especially sensitive persons have to watch out for when choosing fish in the store.

Fish is a healthy food and an important source of biologically high-grade protein, iodine, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin D and selenium. Healthy persons do not need to supplement their diet by taking fish oil concentrates, especially if they eat fish on a regular basis.

The freshness of fish is easiest to see from the eyes. Very fresh fish has bulging, deep black transparent eyes, whereas the eyes of fish that is no longer edible are sunk, opaque and grey. How long a fish stays fresh depends on different factors such as type of fish, time of year and treatment when caught as well as storage temperature.

Unprocessed fishery products (e.g. sushi) and crustaceans (e.g. oysters), cold smoked fishery products (e.g. smoked salmon), pickled fishery products (e.g. Gravad salmon) as well as hot smoked fishery products (e.g. black halibut) may contain bacteria that can pose a health hazard to especially sensitive groups of persons. For in these persons, the body’s defences against microbial infections are impaired or not developed as yet. Among the risk groups are babies and small children up to the age of 5, elderly people (especially if their immune system is weakened), pregnant women and persons whose defences are weakened due to pre-existing illnesses or medication. The BfR’s recommendation to these groups of persons is to only eat well heated fish and sea food and to avoid unprocessed, smoked and pickled fishery products.

The consumption of mussels can also lead to illness caused by viruses. As regards viral infections, gastrointestinal inflammation caused by the norovirus are particularly significant. However, inflammation of the liver caused by the hepatitis A virus has also been observed following the consumption of mussels. In the EU, strict requirements are in place regarding the water quality in areas used for mussel products. Nevertheless, eating raw mussels can lead to sickness. Those wishing to protect themselves from infection should always thoroughly cook mussels before they are eaten.

Additionally, mussels and fish can contain algal toxins. In the oceans, about 5,000 different types of algae exist. A low number of them is capable of producing toxic substances, so called marine biotoxins. These toxins can settle and accumulate in the tissue of mussels and fish that eat such algae. Following the consumption of contaminated mussels or fish, marine biotoxins can cause different illnesses in humans, notably diarrhoea or paralysis which in rare and severe cases can be fatal. Marine biotoxins are thermally stable, meaning that they are not destroyed through cooking. For this reason, mussels are approved by the authorities before they are sold and consumed to ensure that they are safe to eat.

The BfR booth offers various activities for children: for example, there is a crafts corner, or they can test their dexterity trying to catch plastic fish from a tank. A quiz making use of the BfR wheel of fortune asks questions about the booth topic “Fish and Safety”. In addition, the BfR application “Poisoning Accidents Involving Children” will be presented. This application was developed as an information and reference work on poisoning accidents among children and how to avoid such accidents.

About the BfR

The Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) is a scientific institution within the portfolio of the Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture (BMEL) in Germany. It advises the Federal Government and Federal Laender on questions of food, chemical and product safety. The BfR conducts its own research on topics that are closely linked to its assessment tasks.


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