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Seafood FAQ: Shipping and receiving live shellfish requires attention to detail

Distributors remind buyers to maintain temperature when handling these delicate products

Ensuring that customers receive live mussels is paramount for Bangs Island Aquafarms in Portland, Maine.
Fiona Robinson
October 01, 2005

To deliver product at peak freshness, seafood processors, wholesalers and distributors that handle live, or “in-shell,” shellfish and fresh, shucked meats deal with many variables — Mother Nature and high fuel costs, to name two. Buyers have to be vigilant when receiving seafood orders to ensure the product arrives alive and stays that way until it hits the stovetop or raw bar.

Live shellfish such as mussels, clams, oysters and lobsters cannot be handled the same in transit and may react differently upon receipt, depending upon the weather and harvest season. Here is a primer on shipping and receiving in-shell product, along with some specific guidelines to consider for shucked oysters.

Q. What should buyers do first when receiving live shellfish shipments?

The mantra of all vendors handling live or chilled product is “keep it cold.” Extreme temperature variables will increase product mortality, or at the very least “stress” in-shell product and reduce its shelf life.

It is critical to maintain temperatures throughout the supply chain, says Tom Ahern, head of the Rhode Island sales office for shellfish distributor J.P.’s Shellfish of Eliot, Maine. The greatest challenge for buyers receiving product is the summertime heat.

“Fatal conditions [for live shellfish] are pallets left in warm areas for long periods of time,” notes Ahern. This can occur when product is being routed at transfer stations or while a buyer is receiving product at a restaurant or retail location.

“[Buyers] don’t realize how fragile shellfish is and what a big deal a half hour sitting outside the fridge can be,” says John Walker, account manager at distributor Congressional Seafood Co. in Jessup, Md.

Most shellfish goes from a refrigerated delivery truck into a hot kitchen, then into a cooler, then back out into a hot kitchen for cooking. That’s four temperature changes from truck to plate, Walker adds. Packaging in-shell product with plenty of ice, distributing product in a refrigerated truck and storing it as soon as it’s received at the back door will minimize temperature variations.

Q. What should buyers look for when inspecting in-shell shellfish shipments?
Check to make sure oyster shells are closed tight. Clams and mussels should arrive with closed shells, or with slightly gaping shells that close upon contact, says Walker. Softshell clams may gape, but the thin membrane should be intact. All shellfish should be packed with plenty of ice in transit.

Maintain ice coverage but with adequate drainage when product is stored at the restaurant or retail store.

In-shell product also should come with a shellfish tag noting the harvest source, date and harvester’s license number.

Check the shipment with your nose, notes Ahern; product should smell like the ocean. Also check with your ears. “Hollow, rattling noises can imply there may be a dead animal in the shell,” says Ahern.

Q. Is there an acceptable amount of product loss?

Every distributor has its own requirements on dealing with product mortality. Some dealers say 3 to 5 percent breakage or deads due to Mother Nature is normal for all mollusks, while others say 10 percent is acceptable.

Shipping live shellfish is a gamble no matter what species, say dealers, but the way to minimize risk is to pack the product well and educate buyers on the need to refrigerate shipments as soon as they’re received.

Q. How should live lobsters act and be handled after shipping?
Lobsters should be active upon receipt, although some “hibernate” during shipping, which can cause them to act lethargic.

“Lobsters are more fickle in shipping. They’re not as hardy as molluscan shellfish,” says Ahern.

If buyers have an onsite tank, they should immerse the lobsters immediately. Otherwise, refrigerate lobsters in a box, covering them with wet paper and a small amount of ice that will melt to keep the paper wet. The box should have adequate drainage so the lobsters don’t sit in fresh water and drown.

To protect softshell lobsters, they are air-shipped in “hotel” or “cloud” packs, which are slotted boxes that mimic the lobster’s natural environment, says Ahern.

Q. Why do shucked oysters “shrink” or “grow” in transit?
An oyster is predominantly liquid and has a tendency either to release or to retain liquor once it’s shucked, says Kevin Voisin, director of sales and marketing for Motivatit Seafoods in Houma, La.

“The liquid we’re talking about is the naturally occurring liquor — not water. A salty oyster tends to retain its liquor in transit while a weaker oyster with less salt content will tend to bleed out liquor.”

There is some “shrinkage” or “growth” in almost every gallon that is shipped, although the effects tend to be more severe during spawning cycles and immediately after, when the oysters are skinny.

Product fished from areas that have recently seen an influx of fresh water also tend to lose more than others in transit, says Voisin.

Q. Can processors prevent “shrinking” or “growing” of shucked oysters in transit?

While complete prevention is impossible due to the nature of the product, packaging the product for 24 hours before shipment seems to help minimize the effects, says Voisin. The best way to avoid problems is to maintain open communication from the processor to the customer as to what is arriving and its quality.

Weights being put into the gallon can be adjusted periodically to help the end user receive a consistent product. If you’ve received a shipment that doesn’t match up by weight (shucked meats) or count (for in-shell product), call your vendor to discuss the discrepancy before assuming you’ve been “shorted” on purpose.

 October 2005 - SeaFood Business 

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