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Seafood University: From packaging to storage, safety always comes first

Educate customers to ensure their seafood makes it home in good shape and stays that way

Shrimp travel best packed in waterproof plastic containers with snug lids. - Stephen Z. Heddericg
Joanne Friedrick
August 01, 2005

As a retailer, your goal is to carry and sell the best seafood possible. But your reputation remains on the line after you send a product home with the customer.

Seafood can suffer many abuses once it leaves your store; fish can get left in the refrigerator in its original wrapping for too long, or  clams stay in the trunk of a car for the afternoon while the customer continues to run errands.

The list of “seafood abuse” can be long — and potentially dangerous, where consumers’ health is concerned. That is why it’s important to send your customers home with properly packaged seafood and clear instructions on how best to care for it in their own kitchen.

Most seafood is wrapped at retail with the idea that it will be prepared that same day. Careful wrapping will prevent bruising or tears that can shorten the shelf life of the fish.

At Seafood@West Main, a specialty seafood retailer in Charlottesville, Va., owner Chris Arseneault wraps fish in plastic wrap, followed by butcher paper, then sends it home with customers in a plastic grocery bag.

Charlotte Klein Sasso, co-owner of Stuart’s Seafood Market in Amagansett, N.Y., says if customers are headed straight home, fish is wrapped in paper or placed in a cardboard “boat”  and covered with plastic.

Heavier, wetter items, such as scallops, are put into pint or quart containers that are also used for salads, she says.

If you’re dealing with new customers or people who are clearly tourists looking to take products on the road with them, it’s a good idea to supply ice or ice packs to help them keep their purchases fresh.

Most of Arseneault’s customers are local and make short trips from the shop to home. But as the weather heats up, he says, wet ice packs may be used to ensure the seafood stays cold.

Sasso also uses ice or gel packs for travelers’ purchases. “A lot of people bring in their own coolers,” she says. For those who don’t, she puts the gel packs or ice in heavy-duty plastic bags or uses foil to make an ice-chilled package.

And if you have the space, you may want to offer coolers for sale in your store or department for just this purpose. A simple sign can point out that coolers may be purchased and packed with seafood and ice by the department’s staff.

It’s important to remind customers that once they get the seafood home, they should store it as close to 32 degrees F as possible. Arseneault says he advises customers to put the fish — in its original store packaging — in the freezer for a short while to chill it down to 32 degrees, without freezing it.

“Then they can move it to the coldest part of the refrigerator and eat it that day or the next night,” he says.

Another method for holding seafood once a customer gets it home is to unwrap it and store it in a pan filled with ice. The U.S. Department of Commerce’s Seafood Inspection Program suggests the following method:

“To store fresh fish, remove it from its package, rinse under cold water and pat dry with paper towels. The key to removing it from the original packaging is to prevent the fish from sitting in its own juices, which can speed deterioration.”

The next step, according to the USDC, is to place the fish on a rack that is set over a shallow pan, which can be filled with ice if the fish is to remain in the refrigerator for more than 24 hours.

The entire rack and pan are then covered with plastic wrap or foil and refrigerated. As the ice melts, it should be drained and replaced.

Counter staff can inform customers of this procedure, or even better, through a fact sheet enclosed with their purchase. Chances are what you tell them may only be partially recalled, while written instructions can be reviewed and followed once they get home.

Don’t forget to put these same instructions on your Web site so customers can easily refer to the information at home.

Live seafood presents its own set of packaging and handling issues. Arseneault, who sells live lobsters at his store, sends them home in a wax-coated box with a liner to prevent drips.

It’s important to keep live oysters, clams and mussels refrigerated in damp conditions, but not sitting in ice or fresh water. Shellfish should be stored in the refrigerator in containers like mesh bags or boxes that afford good ventilation.

Lobsters and crabs can be refrigerated with seaweed, damp strips of paper or a dampened cloth.

Sasso tells customers to take clams, mussels and oysters out of their packages and refrigerate them in a bowl covered with a damp towel.

Lobsters do best overnight in the refrigerator, she says. “We have to remind  [customers] that lobsters can’t live in fresh water, so don’t put them in the bathtub,” she adds.

Even though much of seafood handling is  based on common sense, Sasso says she takes every question seriously.

The good news, she says, is that the advent of sushi bars and increased seafood consumption have heightened customers’ awareness of the perishability of seafood as well as safe-handling methods.

“But the point can’t be driven home enough,” she says. So as you package your products for your customers, remember to suggest proper handling practices at each step, from transportation to preparation.

So as you package your products for your customers, remember to suggest proper handling practices at each step, from transportation to preparation.

Your repeat business may very well be based on what happens to the seafood after it leaves your store.

 

August 2005 - SeaFood Business

 

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